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Rockman Swimrun

About 3 weeks ago, a friend at work came up to me when I was at the printer. “Are you doing Rockman?” she asked. I was surprised she knew anything about it. Me: “No, why?”. Her: “Oh, my boyfriend’s sister is injured and looking for someone to race with her partner, who is called M..M..” Me: “Marie?!!”

Turned out it was Marie, who I already know. Turned out the race was exactly in between Ironman 70.3 and swimrun Bologna. Turned out there wasn’t anything else in the diary for that weekend. Turned out I said yes. Then I looked at the course detail properly and got slightly concerned.  Turned out I was already committed!

Views of the mountains from our post-race hike

And so it was I found myself getting picked up at 5.15am one Friday morning for a drive to Aberdeen and a flight to Stavanger, Norway. Ruth was the injured party, but she used to live there and had friends to meet and volunteering to do on the race itself. She was also an incredible tour guide / fixer all weekend; I have never felt so spoilt!

Pre race prep: looking at a map and drinking hot chocolate

Rockman is a swimrun race based around a Norwegian Fjord. It was stated as 6km total swimming and 35km running, though I measured a little more. However, one look at the finish times told me something more about the race. Winning times of over 8 hours? On closer inspection, I discovered that the elevation gain was in the region of 2500m or more. The briefing was clear: do not be alarmed when you look at your watch and wonder why it is so slow …

On Saturday morning we all got up early, leaving Ruth’s friend’s house in a taxi. We were straight onto the fast boat to the start. Marie is a chatterbox and we were soon engaged with the others at our seats. The start involves jumping off the back of the ferry straight into the water. We seemed to wait for ages until the music started playing – and I laughed when we got ‘Hall of the Mountain King’ – very appropriate given the towering dark cliffs all around us!

Contemplating the start

On the hooter we all shuffled forwards and jumped. I screamed just a little bit. We had to swim into a cleft, touch a rock and come back out. It was a mêlée and there was a lot of confusion before we got untangled and set off again. I was unimpressed with the swimmer who swam right next to us for ages and kept threatening to clip me with their paddle. I had to work super hard to drop them!!

Our plan was for me to lead the swims and Marie the runs. We’ve raced together before in an Open 5 and a score mountain run, but never in swimrun, and those races were years ago. After the first swim, it was straight up a steep narrow path and it did not seem worth switching the tow around. I led, but didn’t really pull. I just got urged along, with Marie shouting to teams in front that we were now passing them (were we?! 😀 ). It was only 1.6km but took 25 minutes – a taste of what was to come.

Views above Preikestolen

Then a series of short swims and runs, a slight disagreement about which way around a tree to go and a kerfuffle when Marie’s belt fell off (not for the last time in the race!). This section was otherwise uneventful! Then it was the start of an 8km run up to the famous ‘Preikestolen‘ (or ‘Pulpit Rock’) and back down again.

We began the ascent with another female team and Marie marched us past them. The climb was mainly uneven rough hewn rock steps. I was keeping up without being pulled, but did wonder if I was pushing it too hard. I decided there was only one way to find out…

Up and up we went, leaving the treeline and emerging into the sun. It was hot. Marie had calf guards and wetsuit sleeves on and was feeling the heat. She debated taking the sleeves off or pulling her suit down but it turned out later she was worried I would get cross with the faffing! It would have been faff, but in hindsight would have been a good idea.

Anyway, at some point we switched roles and I pulled the last part to the top. What incredible views! We grabbed some sweeties and got our photo taken. The final part was out and back, so we knew we were in second place, with third just a couple of minutes behind.

Time for a quick snap of us on Preikestolen

Marie is a better descender than me, hot or not, so she went back on the front. As we passed a small lake I yelled at her to get in. She lay face down with me splashing water over her head. Much later on we saw a hot looking pig in a field and Marie said that’s how she felt, like a pig getting cool and snuffling in water!

Views above Preikestolen

The girls behind us overtook at speed as we picked our way through the woods. I was keeping up OK, and Marie felt better on the downhill in the shade. She’d given me her arm warmers, which I stuffed in my suit. Later a men’s team handed them back to us – they had dropped out and I had no idea – thanks guys! We later abandoned them altogether at a checkpoint with a willing marshal.

The next swim was short, but afterwards it was another 4km and Marie decided to ‘cab down’. Like me, she had a front zip only wetsuit, and it was tough to get it off whilst not dropping hats, goggles, paddles etc. Turns out it was worth it though, as straight away she shot off considerably faster. Wow!

Typical woodland trail

I was now getting pulled over roots and steps and round corners. The tow was forcing me to keep up and not lose ground on the tricky bits. We stayed tethered nearly all race, when many other teams said it was much too technical to do so. However, I’m used to it from adventure races and got into a routine of holding a bit of slack in the tow, playing it out and shouting if it got too tight over a difficult bit. I find it also forces me to be a bit braver and just let go.

At some point along here I started feeling much less fresh. I had to concentrate to stay sure footed and might have stopped listening or responding to so much of the chat … I was consciously trying to eat more, and I needed to use some of my own supplies as feed stations were further apart than usual and lacking in bananas, my favourite snack! I got frequent reminders from in front to take another gel, and usually took heed 😉

Running high above the fjord

In this way we arrived at the next long swim, 1600m along the fjord next to the rock face. I wasn’t sure where to aim and set my sights directly on a point I thought we had to go round. We overtook many teams here, some hugging the coast, some out near us. We’d been warned about the nippy red jellyfish, but I only saw a few, floating deep beneath us. Just as I started to feel a bit cold I spied a banner just before the point and we got out.

Swimming in the fjord next to steep sided hills

This transition felt slow, as we had a hot drink and messed about with food, taking the tow right off and getting Marie’s wetsuit down. As we set off I wondered what we had been doing for so long! If we raced again we’d need to get these changes slicker 😉 The next section was described as a ‘seaside sprint’, with some mockery. Although it started like before in the woods and I was getting dropped without the tow, it soon turned into a narrow boulder field, alternating big rocks, scree crossings and short wooded sections. I was amused that this was still marked as a national trail, and we had to keep our eyes peeled for the red ‘T’s showing us the way.

2km and 36 minutes later, we emerged unscathed despite a couple of dodgy moments where I slipped or landed awkwardly and only just saved myself toppling down into the sea. Now we faced 5km uphill on tarmac. Ooft! I got cross as Marie raced off whilst I tried to untangle the tow and harness her up!! Even I soon decided I had to get my wetsuit down here. The not-forecasted sun was scorching us and it was uphill. Once we’d done that we settled into a strong steady trot, running side by side and reeling in the occasional team. I was feeling pretty tired and made an effort to eat a bar and some gels.

The easy bit

I was also getting concerned about how we would get back down to the sea in such a short remaining run distance. But before then we hit the waffle checkpoint! No need to queue as Marie did last year, so we didn’t have to choose between racing on after the other teams or getting a waffle! I gratefully took two, smothered in jam. I was happy to walk and eat so ordered Marie to start walking. She started jogging straight down a steep grassy hill. I yelled to walk and she answered she didn’t know how. I riposted that if she kept running I might throw up (it was true). She ignored me so I got like a mule and dug my heels in! After this contretemps, we were back up to racing speed. I was at my limit, tripping and stumbling and just trying to keep it together.

Rocky slabs

At the bottom it was time for the last long swim, one I was looking forward to straight across the fjord and past the finish line at Flørli before going up another big hill. It was here that Marie shouted she had trouble with her new suit. The day before, we’d tested it out in a small outdoor pool in Stavanger and decided to risk it in the race as she loved the greater shoulder flexibility. We had one small concern – a strange and fiddly double zip arrangement.

View across the fjord – we came down that hill somewhere

It was here we came unstuck on the ‘never try anything new in a race’ rule. We couldn’t get the zip to engage properly and every time we pulled it up it just split open again. The marshal tried, I tried, and after about 5 minutes we gave up. Marie, you’re going to have to suck it up and swim across without it zipped. It was quite frustrating after working so hard on the previous section, to be stood there not moving and seemingly with all the teams we had recently overtaken streaming past us.

Rockman

We jumped in and left, with me wondering what they had been saying about currents. I tried swimming without sighting and checking how we moved. Left. We needed to aim right. I was determined to swim strong, always thinking Marie might be cold with water continually flushing through her open zipped wetsuit. Another team headed way to the left of us and I hoped they were just off course. The water was warm with cold spots. Or was it cold with warm spots? Every time it got cold I pulled harder, we couldn’t slow down now! We had to land to the right of a large white old power station building. But I wasn’t sure how far right and I couldn’t see a flag or a banner. Was that red blob a banner? Or should I aim for the orange blob?

Typical swimming in the fjord

As we got closer I decided red was a house and orange was a buoy. We went for the buoy. As we emerged, we got both wetsuits down again and off we ran. Marie panicked about her hat and goggles – still on her head! I braced myself for the next challenge …

I have no idea what this sign says – probably ‘only crazy people race up here’

The fabled 4444 Flørli steps, a wooden staircase alongside the old hydroelectric power station pipes. Marie wanted me to run. I tried but just couldn’t, so we settled for a power walk. I used one hand to keep me steady and pull on the cable or handrail. Marie used both, but I couldn’t with the tow in the way between us. I felt I had completely cracked as I was now being forcibly hauled up like a sack of potatoes. Occasionally the tow got so tight I did one or two double steps to try and catch up before settling back into a rhythm. I couldn’t look at anything except the step in front, else I lost my footing. Marie kept encouraging me, telling me we were gaining on other teams and saying how well we were doing. There was a number marked on the steps every 500 and they seemed to come slow, then fast, then slow. And up we went, relentlessly. We overtook some teams and it got easier near the top. We broke into a jog and got to the next swim, just in time to catch up with the second placed female pair who had been in front ever since they overtook us on the ‘overheating run’.

The steps!! Just a few of them …

Marie announced she couldn’t be bothered getting her suit back on. Oh, OK I thought, well it will be quicker in transition! I did likewise. These last three swims were all short but icy cold … We just launched in and didn’t switch the tow line. I took it easy getting a rest and drinking as we went.

The next run brought us to a 4pm cut off to do the high and long route. Apparently the weather had ruled this out in previous races, so this year we were lucky. We made it with 47mins to spare and set off round the ‘Dragon’s Neck’. I wanted to race but was stressed about the female team getting away from us again. We’d reel them in a bit on an uphill, then they’d fly off again on a downhill. I wondered if I was reacting against the fight and backing off. I discussed it with Marie, but I knew I was trying so hard. My big toes were blistered and sore and my legs were heavy.

Ruth at the ready!

I also told her that I was scared about final run down the hill. She reassured me and we chatted some more about life as we picked our way over giant rock slabs. I felt a bit better. Coming down the final ridge we saw Ruth marshalling on the other side of the final swim. She expressed surprise about our half-undressed state, and offered us an Oreo cookie and chocolate. I remember her yelling that we were looking so strong and how that made me feel good 🙂 . On the way out, we got a great view of the loop we’d just done, but not enough time to marvel at it!

Racers completing the final swim leg

Now we were both on fire. There was a section of gravel road, and Marie spurred me on. We could see teams ahead and aimed to pick them off one by one, even if they were short-coursed and actually behind us in the overall race. There was no sight of the girls but we still raced and raced to the end. The track was like something through the heather in the Scottish Highlands, and I felt awesome. I was on the tow and it had some slight tension, but I was trying to skip and dance, following in Marie’s footsteps. She tripped and lunged forwards twice, but incredibly stayed upright. The final approach was very steep, but we kept it up and I let the tow guide me. My knees were complaining but I knew it wouldn’t be for long. As we went down the final zig-zag we could hear a massive cheer and we did a sprint finish side by side.

The race is front page local news!

My legs were suddenly wobbly and I wasn’t sure I could stay standing up. I started getting all emotional from the effort! Marie guided me over to the hot tub where we could soak and cheer other finishers as they came round the corner. The post race food for me was something akin to stovies – the potato stodge was just what I needed! Prize giving was occasionally interrupted by the final finishers, who got the biggest cheer of the day 🙂 The winners got amazing unique rings with little rocks embedded them, presented by “Rockman” himself! If you want to know more about the legend, you’ll have to go to the race to hear the next instalment!

Marie in the (very) hot tub – well deserved!

We were 3rd female pair, just over 3 minutes behind 2nd. Even more pleasingly, we were 14th overall out of 77 starters. We were also fastest women up the steps (in 44:02), just 2:25 behind the overall winners of the step climb prize. Congratulations to all the other racers, and to the mixed pair who won overall. Results.

Massive thanks to Ruth for organising all our logistics and being a top notch tour guide. Also to Marie for inviting me to be part of this epic race and whole weekend. Likewise the organisers and photographers. This race was the second longest swimrun course I’ve done (by time) and certainly one of the most technical and demanding underfoot – very few chances to zone out! I’ve done much harder swims, but these were certainly scenic. Teaser video already available here – I’m looking forward to reliving the day when the full thing comes out. A race to experience!

Post race wind down: ‘operating a hydroelectric power generator’

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