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Ötillö Swimrun World Championships 2017

At the end of Ötillö 2016 we asked ourselves: ‘how could we go faster again?’ This was knowing we had picked off the easy changes. Not all of our races this season had gone to plan and I had doubts creeping in. Two weeks out and the time for fitness training was done. The only gains that could be made were mental. So we went out and had a couple of good sessions along the East Lothian coast. We ran on the rocks to find confidence, we swam in the sea, we tried out a new tow arrangement, we had fun, smiled and ate cake afterwards.

In Stockholm, boarding the Silverpilen to take us out to Sandhamn

On our last session Izzy had a shoe crisis! The hole in her trusty Icebugs had significantly widened over the last two hours … We googled and thought about it and finally worked out we could order a pair for collection from the Addnature store in Stockholm…

So we arrived and made our way straight into town to pick up the new shoes! This was followed by café stop number 1 and an enormous cardamom bun. We got to our accommodation late but managed a nice run round town in the gathering gloom. No matter that my sense of direction went slightly awry and we did 5 miles instead of 5km.

Pre race fuelling – one of the best lunches we (have ever?!) had (Tyresta nature reserve)

Stockholm feels familiar to us now, helped by the fact we went back to stay at the same place. We had a lovely few days and managed to get ourselves out to the Tyresta nature reserve for a walk, beaver hunting, a swimrun session focussed on technical aspects and another splendid café. Saturday just time for fancy café number three, a swim at Hellasgården and a sauna, complete with cold lake dips.

On the way out we started to feel the wind and waves

Helen Webster, the 220 Triathlon journalist had asked us a few pre-race questions and something in Izzy’s reply got me thinking. Over the couple of days before the race, we devised a cunning plan. It looked like this:

Cunning Plan

  1. Rosemary eat more and Do Not Bonk
  2. Run the little bits and the technical bits at the same speed as last year
  3. Run the three longer sections at a minimum average of 6:30 / km
  4. Go 5s/100m faster on the swims – whether by swimming faster, going in straighter lines or quicker transitions

I would be allowed to tow as hard as I wanted on the easy terrain, without creating pressure on the trickier stuff. 6:30 / km sounded a breeze, just like a very relaxed training run without hills – how hard could it be?

Izzy is the master weather checker and the closer we got to race day the more it looked to be moving in our favour. We willed the temperature to drop and the wind speed to rise.

Lucky I had a new purple jacket to keep me warm on the way over …

The day before the race we all boarded the boats to Sandhamn. We sat outside as it got progressively windier and wavier out in the channel! Helen came up to do an interview, by which time we were the only ones left on deck… We are hardy having trained all year in Scotland, and were looking forward to some exciting swims like we had in 2015 🙂

At the briefing it was apparent the weather was causing the organisers some serious concerns. I did not realise how close they had been to changing the race until later. However, they didn’t, and I am so glad! This is why I love swimrun more than triathlon. It is up to you to look after yourself and your partner and make your own decision about whether it is safe for you to continue. Nature and the conditions it creates are part of the race and the experience.

The start … we’re so far back it’s silly

All night as we tried to get some sleep, the wind blew and flapped things outside. As we woke up, bleary eyed, it was also raining on and off. Izzy had eaten her soaked overnight oats already and we trotted over for me to get breakfast. I asked for the porridge. There wasn’t any. I was sitting there at 4:30 am eating cheese sandwiches and wishing I had brought my own cereal with me …

It was nearly time to go but I was hoping for one more toilet break! I faffed around trying to do what I could as I really didn’t want to stop mid course 😉 Izzy was waiting outside wondering what on earth I was up to and by the time I scurried out we had to line up right at the very back of the gaggle. Oh well, plenty of time to get back to the front again 😉

Chaos on the first swim exit

The gun sounded and off we went. Someone fell over in the rush before we had even gone 100m. Soon we were at the first swim. We had come to look at this the day before and been left mystified as to where we were going. Turns out I’d been looking at the wrong island. Now we had a strobe light to aim for, 1700m away. This swim is sheltered but was still fairly rough. I thought this may mean later swims would be ‘interesting’. At some point the tow popped off Izzy – we’re not sure why – but she managed to grab the end before I swam off and gave it a good tug so that I stopped!!

We landed and were onto the fabled rocks. Because of the rain they were wet and slippery again, like they had been our first year, except now we had our grippy shoes on. There were more teams in the race and we could feel it, as we got caught in a few short queues. I would skip and bound and nip through a gap, only to find I was separated from Izzy. I kept to my promise and waited, and she kept hers, maintaining a positive outlook. Despite other teams coming between us and slipping and sliding more than once, she did not let it affect her mood.

Follow the coastline

On one tricky bit, I heard a cry out and looked back. Izzy was sliding down the steep rocks towards the sea! I quickly assessed the situation. There was nothing I could do to help, and at least she was heading feet first … Luckily she came to a stop before she hit the water and we were off again. But it was easy to see how several teams we saw during the course of the day needed medical attention. It’s always a balance between risk and speed.

Into the second swim and I remembered it was better to head right. However, we got in to the left and weren’t tethered, so it was hard to change direction. I was also edging away from Izzy and was concentrating to make sure we stayed together. As we got out I was kicked in the face by the person in front. I thought I might finish the day with a black eye but it wasn’t so bad after all 😀 . We slid and slipped and I was all over the place as Izzy headed up the rocks!

The safety boats may have had a tougher time out there than us!

It felt like we were losing time compared to last year and failing even at the first hurdle of our plan. We got to the first longer run and headed for the feed station and cut off. Here I checked the time and was surprised to find we were still on target!

I started thinking OK, so maybe we have a chance this plan will work after all, but we have to push on with the easy runs to do it. It felt hard and I reminded myself it was a race, and was meant to be hard work! I had belief that our timings were feasible, and that we’d done enough work and other races that the legs would know what to do without fear of suddenly fading.

Negotiating a swim exit

The second cut off had been revised due to the conditions and was 45 minutes earlier than previous years. If we’d had any issues it might have been tight, so I was keeping an eye on it. However, we sailed through, still within 1 or 2 minutes of our plan.

This cut off is at an out-and-back so we could see from the teams immediately in front and behind that we were very much mid pack for the girls. Our friend Jenny had had to look for a last minute replacement partner and was racing with a girl called Cat. Cat had never done a swimrun before (!) so we were delighted to see them heading in together behind us! I thought if they had made it this far they’d be able to finish.

Water, water everywhere

Along the way we saw a bit of wildlife, especially a deer and Bambi jumping across our path. I also spotted an anthill and several harmless jellies the water. However, at dinner another British pair said they saw a dolphin, or was it a shark?! I think I was too preoccupied on the swims to have seen such a creature even if it had been right beneath me!

We had also been trading places with Marie and Malin just as we had last year, but this time we pulled away on the easy run. I expected to see them again later, but we never did.

Tricky to run in places like this!

Onwards we went. At some point we slowed to eat and get ourselves sorted at the start of a longer run. Teams passed us but we did not react and kept to the plan. It was important for me to eat! As soon as we settled into our pace again, we would overtake and make up places.

One half of a mixed pair had fallen and was crying on the ground beside us. Her partner said maybe she had broken her ankle and we promised to get help. I knew we were close to a swim entry but there was no marshal and I didn’t think to use my whistle to get the attention of the nearest boat. It was a short swim and immediately the other side there was a film crew and I gave them the message.

The Pig Swim – a few wiggles but no big bends!

Soon enough, we passed through the garden full of noisy and musical supporters and then we were at the infamous Pig Swim. It looked rough like it had the first year we did it, but once we were in, the current did not feel so strong. It was windy and there was a lot of chop and white horses. The waves were coming from our left and I often felt like they were assisting with ‘good body rotation’, except sometimes this ‘help’ went too far! Sighting and breathing were difficult and unpredictable but we got straight over and were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves, if a little cold. We grabbed our Twix and kept moving.

Climbing course!

The next 1km swim actually felt more difficult. I was cold and it felt rougher. The water during the race was 12-15oC depending on the swim, but I think our state of fatigue and nutrition had an effect on how this felt. We made it and the next big stage was the half marathon, where we would really face the crux of our plan.

Just before that we caught a clutch of female teams at a feed station. We all jumped into the 300m swim together and headed off. I was shivering hard but it was short and we’d soon warm up. I think we swam faster than they did, and headed off at speed on the other side. We definitely didn’t want to ‘cab down’ yet, and in fact didn’t need to for the whole run.

Typical Stockholm trail through the woods

Now we had to try and average 6:30 / km for an extended period. In doing so, we would make up a lot of time on our previous two attempts and this was the easiest place to do it. I had forgotten how rough the start was though, and we were barely averaging the right speed, before we suddenly got an 8:11! I wanted to panic and push on and tow hard, but I remembered the plan, and to do so was not in the plan where the ground was more difficult. We had also accumulated several minutes in the stages immediately preceding this, so we had some ‘in hand’. I waited until we got to the wide track and then went for it.

I was pretending I was out for a long steady training run. I tried to relax, to run tall and look ahead, to use my arms and to trick my mind into thinking I had just stepped out of the door and really hadn’t been racing for 8h at all. As my watched beeped and the km ticked over I was feeling good – now we were comfortably going under 6:00 / km!

Scrambling up and over rocks, a feature of the day

The roads go on and on but it was drizzling with rain and nice and cool. This was easier than in scorching sunshine. We ran fast in our suits which have very thin and flexible legs. I remembered to eat, feeling like I was going overboard but knowing I really wasn’t. It made such a difference, I kept my head and did not feel like having a little sit down!

With two or three km to go I felt that the tension in the tow cord was getting stronger and more persistent. We hadn’t been talking much as there was no need and it was better to concentrate on what we were doing and where we were putting our feet. I silently willed Izzy to keep going and told her how far it was. She didn’t quite believe me, because this run is a little shorter than advertised, so you have to trust experience!

It was true though, and we were so delighted to finally get to a swim, chattering excitedly to the marshals. We remembered these sections as a series of short, easy and refreshing swims with some fiddly running in between. The marshals told us to look at the current – it was like a river running left to right. The coast jutted out to our left, so I followed it as far as possible before launching ourselves across. It was hard work but not too bad in the end. I was happy my arms did not feel as tired as they had before we did the long run!

Wind whipping the surface of the sea

We approached the next swim – 350m. There was no marshal but we could see the current again. It looked so strong and this time there was no protection. I hesitated, not wanting to get in. We looked across and I decided to aim for a small hut to the left of the flag. The swim seemed to start well, and I sighted often to make sure we were still on track.

Suddenly, about 50m from shore, the current accelerated and seemed to catch us without warning. We were sliding to the right at high speed! I pulled with all my might and could feel the tow going tight behind me. I was picturing Izzy swinging away from me in the current. We passed the flag where we needed to land and the adrenaline was coursing through me. As I breathed to the right I could see the island does stick out a little – I thought if we could just get in line with those rocks then if we got pulled along we should hit them – if we didn’t get washed around instead! I didn’t want to find out and in my haste started to kick my legs. It might have been counter-productive as then my pull buoy popped out and was bobbing next to me – still attached but ineffective and in the way. I could see the bottom but couldn’t reach it. Izzy told me she tried to put her feet down and failed. There was someone standing on shore but I didn’t pause to look if he had instructions. I daren’t stop throwing my arms over, knowing that as soon as I did we’d be pulled away from where we needed to be without any chance of swimming against the current.

With a super human crazy strength I finally got close enough to grab the rocks with my hands. I hauled myself up, and helped Izzy behind me. Oh my goodness! What a total relief. The marshal was full of praise and admiration as he ran along to show us the way. There was no time to stop, but I was jabbering to Izzy. I am not easily scared but that was SCARY. What happened to straightforward finishing swims?!

Not us, but rough water and steep slippery rocks made swim exits tricky

I feared what might come now between us and the final run. They are all less than 200m, but still … at one swim we couldn’t read the water and when we got in we could see the bottom but were not moving anywhere.

Finally they were over, and we double, triple checked with the marshal. YES this is now the final run!

The staff are dedicated!

At the last timing station I checked how we were doing against plan. We’d lost some of our advantage with those difficult swims, but we were still ahead. We were going to make it, we were going to hit our ’20 minute faster’ target, but could we even make it 30? Izzy tells me to go for it and she will hang on. I say ‘it’s only like two laps of Porty parkrun’. Except then we are faced with a hill we don’t remember …

Us holding each other up at the finish line after a final all out sprint

We got up and over and went for it. We put in a sub-5 min km as we smashed it. Only one ‘Porty parkrun lap’ to go. The final road climb came suddenly. Someone walking back said ‘you are 4’ … eh? ‘Yeah, we’re number 404’, I think to myself. We worked and worked. We nearly caught the male team in front with our sprint finish and I could hardly breathe. Not quite 30 minutes faster than last year, but 28:15. Final time 11:18. Result! Michael Lemmel is ready with the hugs and tells us we’re 4th females. Whaaat?!! We cannot believe it and are super, super happy.

Finish line delight!

We were so early we managed to get changed, eat, drink beer (Izzy) and still make it to prize giving. Just time to buy a t-shirt and go through all the facebook notifications – it had been going wild with friends back home tracking our progress! Results here. We were 15 minutes away from 3rd – close enough to feel we were not miles off the pace, but far enough to know it was not just out of grasp! In fact, we lost all that time in the first 4h and then held the gap. The weather helped us – when the wind was roaring in our ears it felt just like a jaunt down at Gullane. Some other fast teams did not start, or had to pull out due to injuries or sickness. But it didn’t stop us being over the moon.

For a 5 minute edit of the live coverage, including some cool coverage of the water conditions, check out this video:

For me, this was a remarkable case of following a plan and getting our minds in order. It is so much better to race this way, to both be on the same page and to maximise performance.

Cunning Plan – The Results

  1. Rosemary eat more and Do Not Bonk:
    I ate 3 gels, half a Clif bar, ¾ a chia Charge, a pack of Honey Stingers and generally two things at every feed station! (banana, homemade energy balls and energy drinks)
  2. Run the little bits and the technical bits at the same speed as last year:
    Yes
  3. Run the three longer sections at a minimum average of 6:30 / km:
    Run 1 (8.6km) – 6:02, Run 2 (8.0km) – 5:52, Run 3 (17.7km) – 6:34
  4. Go 5s/100m faster on the swims – whether by swimming faster, going in straighter lines or quicker transitions:
    Total swim time 2016 – 3:20:18, 2017 3:15:56 = 3s / 100m faster

It’s nice to go to races now and know quite a few people. Special mention to Cat and Jenny who did finish. Even more remarkable when I found out that Cat had never swum more than a mile nor in the sea before… not really recommended but she had a fantastic attitude and trusted in her partner. Her report here.

Also want to say thanks to…

  • Scott, for coaching and making sure I don’t go too ‘bonkers’, like him.
  • Grace, whose nutrition analysis was spot on and helped me get to the start line 4 kg lighter than last year.
  • Ellie, for her amazing pilates classes that help my strength and balance.
  • Alan for stroke analysis to help me swim faster, or at the very least, more efficiently.
  • Staff at Physis for keeping my body together, especially Rachel for massage and Graham for physio – I know I can rely on you.
  • Andy, for putting up with all my training and away weekends.
  • Izzy, for getting it together and racing her heart out on the big day.

And of course race directors Michael and Mats, all the volunteers and our sponsors sportextremeswimrun.com for suits and goggles and Gococo for socks.

Mats and Michael after a long day keeping an eye on us all and handing out hugs and love

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Swimrun Bologna

A statue in the nearby town – we needed strength like this!

When I saw that there was an Ötillö merit race in Italy, I knew I wanted to go! Having spent years learning Italian I like to grab my chances to visit a place where I can ask questions and successfully interpret menus!

It was near Bologna and after an hour’s drive we turned into a particularly steep drive and arrived at our B&B. The lady who greeted us didn’t speak English so I was straight into my best attempts at Italian whilst Izzy followed and smiled! We were in the perfect place – a whole apartment complete with mini kitchen, terrace and cake for breakfast and just 20 minutes walk from the race HQ (or longer by the scenic woodland trail).

We had a couple of days to explore and try out the water. The most dramatic event was a snake slithering over Izzy’s legs as we innocently looked at the view from a pavement …

 

We didn’t need this wrapping itself round Izzy’s legs pre-race..

Registration and logistics were as simple as can be. A cheap swim hat, a nice t-shirt that wasn’t white or black and which actually fitted (right priorities!), our number written on our arm and leg. No timing chip, no bib, no compulsory kit! It was HOT so we didn’t even need a wetsuit and the race course zig-zagged around a fairly compact area which I guess made it easier to marshal and provide safety cover.

On race morning we both felt a bit sick. I put it down to nerves and once we actually got started I was fine. We agreed to stay off the tow for the first run in the mêlée, straight up and down a hill. Izzy set a good pace and we were soon at the first swim. I wasn’t sure where to go but followed others and enjoyed the feeling of cool water on my skin.

The first climb

Next run was up and down again (a much repeated pattern!). Izzy seemed to find this leg harder and after some previous experiences, I was anxious not to tow too hard on the downhills. Into another swim and now we faced the longest leg of about 7km. It went uphill more than expected, then into an extended downhill on a mixture of wide tracks and winding woodland trails.

The further we went, the slower we seemed to go. I was getting frustrated but did not say anything. As another female pair ran past us, Izzy slipped and when she was up, took the tow off. I could tell by the way she did it that there was no arguing. However, after this we started going at a much better pace, catching the girls back up as we got to the longest swim.

An early transition

We had clear instructions here: aim for the church high on the hill, then you’ll see a blue iron pier, aim for that, then the landing is just to the left. Off we went, I could see the church, then the pier. The closer we got, I kept looking for a flag to the left and could see something green I hoped was a marshal vest. We were with two other pairs and a kayaker came over and seemed to be trying to tell us something. I paused and looked around – darn, the green thing was a tent, there was a buoy and a flag way over to our left! I abruptly changed course and we landed.

The next run was a short 1.5km along the shoreline and it reminded me a bit of the trails we’d had so much fun on in Spain. I wasn’t sure if Izzy wanted the tow on or off as we seemed to be making tentative progress. I was wondering whether to ask when the girls overtook us again. At that moment, Izzy crashed to the ground, tripping on a tree root.

When you realise you’ve aimed for the wrong thing

She cried out that her wrist hurt and was thoroughly miserable sitting on the floor. A couple walking asked if she’d fallen and looked a bit bemused at us. I was assessing the damage. Izzy was still putting weight through both hands so I decided the wrist couldn’t be broken and probably the best thing to do was get the tow off and wait and see what happened next. She got up and started moving. We made it to the lake and hooked back on. I told her if she couldn’t use her arm then to be as streamlined as possible! I wasn’t sure if I could tow a one-armed swimmer, but I’d give it a go! As it was, she had been able to modify her stroke slightly so it didn’t hurt too much and I didn’t notice any difference from normal.

Out the other side and I knew racing bets were off. I took the tow off to allow Izzy to go at her own pace without pressure from me. We were over halfway through but had the long run to do in reverse, up and up the hill through the woods. We walked and sometimes jogged and walked some more. I went through many emotions and thoughts in my head but mostly said nothing.

Swimmers crossing the lake

Eventually we came out onto the road and we knew the climb was nearly done. I gave Izzy some encouragement for toughing it out and knew we’d finish now. I even attempted a few ‘jokes’ to lighten the mood 😀 . It was about here she told me she’d been feeling super sick since the first swim. We pondered why: too much caffeine or cake at breakfast? Not used to the tap water? Something we swallowed in our test lake swim? The ice cream? Snake shock?! We didn’t really come to a concrete conclusion but kept plugging away.

Now we repeated some early parts of the course and finally just had the first run to do in reverse. We came down the hill and into the finish, had our time recorded and stopped. We were second female pairs, but there hadn’t been a lot of competition and looking at the time of the winners (who we’d been with at halfway) it was clear that our travails had cost us at least 20 minutes.

However, we had avoided a DNF and had persevered. And now we just had to bag a sun lounger and investigate the post race food! Two kinds of pasta, loads of cake with lemons to squeeze over, beer, soft drinks, sun, shade, chat from other racers … It was a great atmosphere!

Full results here. This race is really good value for money, simple and fantastic to race without any need for a wetsuit 🙂 Even though the weather was hot, the frequent swims keep you cool and there is a lot of tree cover. The Italians seem to come out in force in their matching club strips, so there is a lot of buzz about the place. The t-shirt and post race food were excellent and we got some fun prizes. I’d like to come back and fly round the course! Recommended!

This couple were delightful and kept trying to persuade us to race in Italy again …

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’

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!

Borås swimrun 2017

I am getting very behind with my race reports, and the races are coming thick and fast!

I had a busy summer planned, including throwing in a triathlon (more on that in a later report). In an effort to get 6 counting races for our swimrun ranking, Izzy and I entered Borås swimrun (near Gothenburg in Sweden) even though it was only one week before Isles of Scilly. We later discovered that the 6 races could be over two years – but by then it was too late!

Ready, get set ..

I was quite excited to be going back to the scene of our first ever swimrun. I wanted to see how it would feel now that we have two years of experience and training behind us, instead of cutting our wetsuits and practicing transition routine the night before! We also had the advantage that Izzy hadn’t been sick and not eating the week before.

The day got off on slightly the wrong foot; when we registered we were handed one buff between us and were told to share … a slight that was keenly felt when the male / mixed teams all seemed to have one each!

We got changed and were nearly ready to go, though Izzy seemed a bit distracted trying to program the car gps to get her back to the airport after the race. She had to whizz off a day early to get back for a big work thing and was going to miss her in-car navigator (i.e. me)!

Grand beginnings

The start line was significantly beefed up compared to last time, using a big arch that was already installed from the previous day’s triathlon. The race director, Jonas, had chatted with us when we arrived and said the water was on the cool side. We begged to differ, since we had been splashing around in it without a wetsuit the day before…

The race starts with a steep uphill through the woods. Last time we really backed off here, but had a plan to start a bit more confidently. However, Izzy slipped on a rock, saved it, but I was having to keep pausing. I didn’t feel like I was going fast, but with the adrenaline of a race situation it can be hard to judge. I let her run in front a bit to set the pace and soon enough we leapt into the murky first swim. Something wasn’t quite right as Izzy wasn’t on top of my toes and on the exit she shouted we had to slow or go on tow. This was the technical tricky bit of the course though, so I just pegged it back until we got down.

Still doing OK this close to the start!

The next couple of swims and runs we seemed to settle down, until it was off up the side of the hill again. I was pulling hard but I am not sure Izzy was really appreciating the sentiment!! However, as we headed down again and across the lake with the first of three longer swims, things got back to ‘normal’.

We would run with a little group, lose them on a swim, find a new group and so on. The long swim across the end of the lake went much more smoothly than last time, with only a minor detour to avoid the spiky reeds at the end. I think I did a better of job of sighting – ignoring the house and instead picking some slight feature on the horizon.

Creatures wading out through undergrowth, totally normal..

The river swim was still exceedingly jungle-like, now with added crocodiles, whales and other assorted out-of-place creatures. I got hit on the head by a floating stick, we had to doggy paddle under fallen trees and pause to check which way to go round the various obstacles.

Crocodile infested waters

As we exited, hauling ourselves up a rope, I was feeling the pressure on my bladder and only now finally managed to let go a pee… how bizarre that even when swimming around in water for so long you can get so bursting!

The long run was upon us and it was raining. It occurred to me that this was quite a rare experience for us in swimrun, though we barely noticed and it was quite welcome relief. At some point along here, we glimpsed a couple of female teams up ahead. We could only see them because we were now moving faster than them, but it was a bit of added pressure. Every swim we’d catch them a bit, then they’d maintain or pull away on the run.

En route

We’d done quite a good job of running down the trails on the tow so far. I’d been surprised that Izzy had let me do a little pull, assuming she was just getting used to it. It’s a fine line on downhills between giving just enough encouragement to let it go and keep moving, and pulling too hard and causing an instinctive counter-reaction. On the final downhill I crossed the line and soon knew about it…

Last swim exit

But then it was some final swims and we were flying. We overtook one team and were catching another – just on their heels at the final exit. But they jumped out and raced up to the arch, with us a few seconds behind.

Final position was 5th females, which was a disappointment as we had been targeting the podium. Indeed, looking at the splits our second half was easily second fastest, but we had too much to do to make up for earlier mishaps. We just needed the race to be a couple of hours longer! 😀 Results here.

Pre race, at least we both started smiling!

However, when we added our points to the swimrun ranking it was well worth the day out, probably because we placed OK overall (about 25th) and times were tight. It also seems points devalue by 75% (not by 25% as I had thought), so those six races this year all matter! It can be hard for both in a team race when one of you just has a bad day, but you’ve got to take the rough with the smooth and move on…

And in our case, we had the Isles of Scilly swimrun coming up just one week later!

Ah … post race ‘relief’!

Thanks to Andy Kirkland for most of the pictures, except the crocodile one from Patrik Magnerius. Also to the organisers for a well-run race, BuffGate not withstanding 😉

Swimrun Costa Brava

First swimrun race of the year! We were looking for Ötillö merit races that fitted our schedule and that were easy to get to – important practicalities given everything else we have on this year. Swimrun CostaBrava fitted the bill and once I had watched the race video from last year I decided we had to go! With 34km of running, 7.5km of swimming, loads of transitions, technical terrain and some hills, it was also a perfect preparatory race for the rest of the year.

Sunrise the morning of the race

So, after an easy flight to Girona, pick-up of the hire car and 30 minutes drive we were in Platja d’Aro. It was difficult to find a vegetarian sandwich for lunch, and we ended up with cheese in fried bread. Hmm, luckily culinary options improved after we had time to browse around looking at menus when not in a state of extreme hunger 😀

We were staying in the resort where the finish line and race HQ were. The season hadn’t really got going, so it wasn’t heaving, and we had a delightful hotel perched on a rocky outcrop at the end of the beach. Our room had a balcony overlooking the sea, what could be more perfect? Oh, the sun was shining!

The rock archway we swam through on Friday

The race wasn’t until Sunday, so we spent Friday exploring some ruins, a hidden cove with an amazing arch to swim through, trails and generally awesome scenery and exceptionally clear water. It was also delightful to swim in 14oC, since our latest Scottish training sessions haven’t yet got into double figures. We also checked out the start in Begur and had some amazing ice cream. Saturday waas a trip to walk round the walls in Girona and a last minute pop into Decathlon for a new waterproof case.

Ice Cream!!! We may have had time for one or two on this holiday.

On Sunday morning we had to get up early. The coach was at 06:30, so despite hotel breakfast on offer, we ate some soaked oats in our room and headed down at 06:22. The reception manager seemed perplexed that we weren’t popping into the dining room for food and there were still several racers sitting at the tables. Was this Spanish time?!

The race starts on the top of a hill with the remains of an old castle on it. We were looking around for any other female pairs, but all other girls we spotted seem to have a bloke with them. The start lists hadn’t had the classes on, so we had been guessing which competitors had girls’ names! It was odd to race thinking we were probably the only ones in our class, but we had other goals; to show that women could place well overall and to chase our stretch target time of 7h30.

The start!!

Soon it was time to go and we had a steep downhill, which we had agreed to take easy. I was pleasantly surprised to hit trails almost straight away as we twisted and turned down through the trees to a cove. There was a slight bottleneck and we had to slow, but nothing too bad. I was impressed that everyone was so chilled, there was no pushing and shoving from behind. I liked this race already!

View of the first swim – I *think* it’s us front-centre of this shot

At the bay we got straight into the deliciously cool, clear water. I wasn’t at all sure where we were going, so just followed everyone else. The exit was onto a large rocky outcrop that rose above us. Someone in front actually fell on top of me and I was pushed back in the water, but Izzy didn’t even notice as she has really sped up transition recently and was already by my side and leaping out! No harm done and off we went, slogging up and up.

We wanted to admire the views as the steep sides dropped away beneath our feet to the sparkling blue water, but we had to watch our footing. On one of the hills we overtook quite a few teams. We both had the same thought – it was like the trail race we did at Glentress – except for the weather. Swap wet trails and sleet for dry paths and sunshine! It felt good to know we’d done some race-specific practice 😀

Most of the teams we passed then all came past again on a technical descent. Then another swim and repeat! Except that on the downhill this time, the teams in front got away but we held off the ones behind.

Manon (Francois’ partner) on the climbing section!

Some of the sections were quite tricky. In two places we had ropes to help us get either up or down – one of them suddenly had us swim-climbing as well as the usual swim-clambering!

The swims also took us to places we wouldn’t know were there, as we hopped from cove to cove. We were led through a passage with high cliffs either side, the water dropping away to the depths beneath us.  On every swim there were many fish flitting below and it was difficult to concentrate on what we were doing. It almost seemed a shame to have to race…

Halfway through the race and I remarked that we all seemed to have found our places. The teams we’d been going back and forth with had all disappeared and we were on our own in this amazing landscape.

The course marking was superb, we only put a foot wrong once, well, about 3 footsteps! The feed stations were well spaced and veggie options clearly marked. They had some fruit jellies that I love – I’ve never thought of these as race food before but they went down so well! All the marshals and helpers were super friendly, and we were offered water at many points outside the feed stations, though we never took any.

Let us attack this hill!

The locals and tourists were taking the race seriously as well. As we ran through someone’s garden the owners were out cheering us on and offering refreshments. A row of trekkers shouted various words of encouragement as they moved over to let us squeeze past. Bravo! Vamos! Girl Power! Allez! One chap even did a full solo Mexican wave! We shouted back, waving our arms and grinning like loons (well, I was, but I can’t speak for Izzy 😉 ).

Some of the colourful flowers we ran past

In addition to the breath-taking views, there were flowers and herbs out in abundance. In particular, we often caught the scent of jasmine on the breeze, which never failed to lift my spirits. In places the path round wound the coast, popping in and out of little tunnels. Without fail, these prompted ‘poop-poop’ and ‘chooff-chooff’ noises, along with laughter 😀

Castle!! I love a good castle, shame we couldn’t poke our noses in as we passed this time

After about 5 hours we were approaching the place where we had played on Friday. Psychologically, it makes a difference to be somewhere you recognise. It also marked the point at which the nature of the race changed. The switches between swims and runs came more often, and we passed through some bigger towns, with mixed receptions. We also started catching and passing the occasional team, with some amusing reactions especially when I shouted a cheery ‘hola!’ – sorry guys, you peaked too soon!

Eventually I said to Izzy “Just 6 runs and 5 swims to go!” “whaaaat?!” was the reply … “but don’t worry”, I added, “no run is more than 1.2km!”. We kept whizzing along, up and over and down three massive rock bars. Then we hit a lot of sandy runs and the whizzing slowed to something more like ‘plodding’. On one beach we were walking until someone sunbathing cheered, so we felt obliged to run again!

The large blocks which made up the ‘bars’ we swam between and ran over!

Eventually we had to run right past our hotel. If we’d been on the ground floor we’d have seen straight into our room! This signalled just one more swim and then a run into the town with assisted police traffic control and up to the finishing arch. We were indeed the only women’s team, but this also meant we were the winners! We were whisked away to stand on a very high podium and to be presented with roses for Saint Jordi (St George) day.

Podium – I’ve still got my hat on!!

Overall we were 18th. This was the second year of the event and the quality of the field had gone up since last year! This was out of 51 registered teams, though not all started and only 44 finished. Even better, we came over the line in 7:28:41 – mission accomplished!! Full results here.

I can’t recommend this race enough – well done to the organisers. If you don’t fancy the full length course, then there is a sprint and a short version as well 🙂 Also thanks to various photographers including Head, www.risck.com and Swimrun France. Our friend François carried a selfie stick the whole way to get his ‘on course’ photos, and you can see his video here. Official race video here.

Thanks also to sportextremeswimrun.com for our Head Aero wetsuits. This was my first race in mine (Izzy used her at 1000 Lakes as well) and it was so easy to run in whilst being plenty warm enough for us. Also Gococo socks, which we don’t hesitate to use in every race. Our hardest decision is deciding which pairs we will both wear to make sure we are coordinated!

Open 5 – Ampleforth

Lucy was unavailable for the last race in the Open 5 series, something to do with a hen do. It was doubtful whether I would come either until quite late, meaning my original ‘new partner’ had made other plans by the time I could confirm. Luckily, Jon (Itera and sometimes SMBO teammate) was up for it instead.

Work was still high pressure and I had managed to catch a bug the week before. Luckily, it didn’t seem to make me feel bad, but on the other hand I was coughing up gunk and lost my voice on Saturday night. My mum dropped me off and as we sat down to plan, Jon had to interpret the squeaks and grunts. The map looked … tricky! The bike had a few options, the general loop looked straightforward, but we were unsure how long it might take to weave in and out. The run looked long and difficult to fit together.

This way to your first abbey of the day

We decided to bike first, to make sure we got lots of good points without running out of time. This is something Lucy and I had decided on last month, though in retrospect it might have been better the other way round for this race. Off we went, and the pace was higher than I’m used to …

This wasn’t a bad thing, as the mixed pairs is a much more competitive category than the female pairs, and Jon and I would need a good race to get on the podium at all. It’s nice to be pushed in different ways with different people. We were debating and debating as we rode up a road about which controls, if any, to drop out, and how bad a particular bridleway up at the top of the map might be.

Poring over the big maps …

We got tangled up with a male and a mixed pair, and were riding across the flat topped hills and fields with them, concertinaing at every gate. I don’t like doing this much, it puts me under the wrong kind of pressure! At the road junction we had to make a decision, which was partially influenced by going whatever way the other teams weren’t, and partly by wanting to go and see Rievaulx Abbey (it is quite spectacular).

Unfortunately, as soon as we turned right we picked up another mixed pair, and they were fast ones! I recognised them as usually jousting for top spot. We were quite matched for speed, even as we fought along the muddy bridleway. It was more rideable than some I’ve seen, so I wasn’t too disappointed. Pushing up a hill I saw Jon turn back and grin as he stuffed in some energy bar and took the hint! Banana down in one.

No bananas for birthday boy Mark – he knows how to transition!

At the ford we again took a decision to go ‘the other way’ and turned back up the hill on our own to go and get an ‘easy out and back’. My lungs were searing from the effort. And easy it was not, as some of the map marking obscured an important detail of the bridleway junctions. We headed down a (what turned out to be the wrong) bridleway looking for a turning that didn’t exist, found ourselves pushing up a steep little valley, back onto the track we should have been on .. grr …

Back over Sutton Bank, and we were screaming down a road hill, at least we would have been if we hadn’t been stuck behind a horse box! At least this meant we didn’t shoot past our turning and soon we were descending down some of the best riding of the day, through the woods. We now got held up behind some horses not in a box. The riders politely asked us to hang back until a wider spot as the horse was jumpy, and I wasn’t going to argue! Once we were past, we whooped and swooped all the way down.

Steve gave me a lift to the station, but luckily navigation to get there was a bit easier

Only a few out and backs up sharp hills to go. My legs were feeling it now and I kept getting left behind. I didn’t seem to have any energy left and was doubtful about how I would be able to run later.

On the way into transition, we passed a lady kneeling and doing her borders. As we left again on the run we laughed with her about the number of people passing her quiet house! She was lovely and shouted encouragement at us.

As we went we mused on when it was I had actually last ‘ran’ anywhere with Jon (not counting long treks in an expedition race). Maybe the 10k round Cardiff Bay, or a long ago Open 5 on Anglesey … Anyway, Lucy must have had an effect on me as after I had coughed some sludge out of my lungs, I was keeping it ‘steady’, but hearing some notes of concern from behind! Oops.

Byland Abbey – abbey number three of the day

The run was hot. I had just popped on my normal sports glasses to race because it wasn’t raining. However, sweat was running across the lenses making it hard to see, and also stinging my eyes. When I wiped them they were smeary, and when I washed them they were streaky! I never have these problems training, I wonder what that says about my usual pace 😉

We went up and down, up and down, lots of little short sharp climbs out and back. Sometimes we seemed to run for an age between controls. Then we were navigating across farmland, having difficulty locating a path which did not match the map on the ground, and coming out on a road back to another abbey. The run had been awkward, with high value points straddling the two obvious ‘loops’. We were calculating whether we could get our final long out and back for 20 points. As we firmed up that each ‘only a kilometre’ was actually ‘a kilometre and a bit’ we realised it was a no-go.

Doing a good job of talking even when I can’t talk

Straight back to the finish, I was trying to push the pace as I know how often the mixed pairs results come down to time. Jon was lagging and I was trying to be encouraging, but it turned out he was nearly getting cramp! Remarkably, in we rolled 4 minutes EARLY. Unheard of.

We were kept in suspense at prize giving as our category was last to be announced. We knew our score was quite low, but were crossing our fingers this was due to a difficult course rather than our lack of competitiveness. Finally, we got the results – 2nd 🙂 I was pleased as I was aiming for podium, though it would have been nice to be closer to the winners (we were 29 points adrift) – wouldn’t it always! Well done to Jackie and Phil who won today. Fullr esults here. The series prize was super close and came down to time only – it went to Molly and Peter (we split them in the results for this race).

Mixed pairs podium

In the post-race analysis I did spot an extra 10 points we could have got on the run in the time we had, but after that it was probably a combination of luck and ‘not blindingly obvious’ different strategies that were needed to do better. Jackie and Phil spent more time running first, which was probably key. I think it also takes a while to get used to a different person and play to each other’s strengths, and Jon and I have rarely raced this format together.

Off with a lift to the station in glorious sunshine for me, another Open 5 series done for the year. Many thanks to James Thurlow and everyone at Open Adventure for keeping me busy and motivated all winter, and to James Kirby for photos.

After coming and going during the race, my voice disappeared and didn’t come back until Tuesday, when the bug got worse and 3 weeks on from when it started I am still fighting … Less than a week to go now until the first swimrun race of the year for Izzy and I – Costa Brava, here we come!!

Lucy and I won the series, so I had to smile for both of us!

 

Open 5 – Church Stretton

It was touch and go whether Lucy and I would race together at this one. Logistics, health and work for both of us getting in the way a bit! Anyway, by the Sunday morning we were both present and correct and admiring the fresh dump of snow on the Long Mynd 🙂

A bleak start. No-one looks in a hurry to set up transition!

We had decided last month that we were going to break with (our) convention and bike first, to try and get all the good points on offer even if it took more than 3 hours, then trim our run accordingly. I was under strict instructions though – no smashing it allowed – Lucy had a big race the following weekend. My coach had said: “may we be blessed with no navigation mistakes and fabby route choices, smooth n silky….”

It was working out like that on the bike at least 😀 After a quick out and back along the road, we set off clockwise, doing the big climb all the way on the road, with the snow rapidly clearing. A horse trotted across the road across us, which was most unexpected. On the way, we figured out a slightly smoother way to get to the controls we were now after, having seen the values (we’d ditched a couple far off on one side of the map). Smooth n silky!

The first big descent was extremely wet. My saddle has a cutaway section and the icy cold water was spraying up right through from underneath … ugh! Then we hit a road in disguise. I got a clod of mud right in the eye and it took some time before it stopped feeling as if someone was sandpapering my eyeball. We were cruising along with a delightful tailwind. I imagined what Andy would have said if I’d planned a road ride along this mud encrusted tarmac 😀

Steep sides…

Although on some of the hills I was dropping Lucy, it was only because my gears don’t go as low as hers – I was happy to let her pull back again. We were making good progress and only really ground to a walk on the final climb back up the Mynd, on a track with deep tractor ruts. It would probably have been ridable if the wind hadn’t been blowing us sideways so hard it was impossible to stay riding on a narrow enough line.

We flew *down* here when it was just soggy grass

Popping back out at the top it was all downhill from here. We laughed as we passed Jon slogging up the wet grassy hill as we flew down! Lucy took a tumble on a short section of boardwalk just as I was thinking it might be slippy. I could tell it was a hard one as she didn’t bounce back up immediately, but little was said and on we went. We both got super cold on this descent, not enough pedalling going on. But soon enough we were back for a slow transition whilst we fumbled the changeovers and rammed our unfeeling feet into running shoes. We were so fuddled we both ran off with our bike helmets still on!

Transition – biking done

As we made our way along the road, my little toe felt as if it was broken under the others! The bike had been good, but now we needed to adjust our run to the shorter time we had left (1h42). The points allocation and our remaining time was making it tricky to decided a good route. I let Lucy consider whilst I did my second wee stop of the day. Most unusual, I must have drink too much tea! Ha. Unfortunately we got disorientated near the start, following a path not on the map and losing the map detail under various other markings.

We righted ourselves and were soon moving at a reasonable and maintainable speed. A chap going the other way warned us it was slippery (?!). We did a hard right and the path headed uphill. One control was cheekily placed on the other side of a stream, forcing us to get wet feet. As we ascended a valley with steep sides I realised this was where Lucy said we’d have to escape from at some point … she was kind, as we carried on up quite a while before cutting cross country up the sides.

Hills for running around

We came out on top and I was worried about time. Half an hour left, the finish seemed a long way off and what was this, why were we running uphill again?! It was an out and back to the top and then we really were descending, with more urgency now. The final control at the reservoir was misplaced vs the map, meaning we lost a little time before turning down a large tourist path back to the town. This was no longer ‘steady’, nothing like it … but we minimised our losses and were only 4 minutes late.

Sprint finish!

Enough to win female pairs and secure the series (which we wanted to do as Lucy really can’t come to the last one), and still tantalisingly close, but not ahead of, the mixed pairs 😉 15th overall. Results. This area is a great place to bike and run in all weathers.

Been finished a few seconds now, must be time to review the map and route choices!!

Thanks to Open Adventure for organising, James Kirby for photos, all the volunteers and to Jon and Andrea for a lift home with inbuilt small child entertainment in the back (just don’t get me started on the female representation in ‘Adventure Stories’…).

Foxtrail Harvest Moon Trail Half Marathon

I had been looking forward to this event, as compared to the 10km, the distance was more to my liking! By Friday night, torrential rain and gale force winds were forecast, I still had DOMS a week after the Open 5, work was nuts so I was tired and the effects of my cold lingered on. On the plus side I had an enormous pizza for dinner, which I thought might cancel everything else out!

Another early start and Izzy and I were heading over towards Tyninghame, where we had done some fabulous swimrun training last year. Leaving the car, it was indeed wet and windy. After registering we were back to sit in the car and put off getting out again. Soon enough we decided it was time for a warm up. I needed the toilet though and queues were such that my ‘warm up’ was done on the spot!

Looking around at the other competitors at the briefing in the marquee I felt slightly over dressed in my knee length socks, 3/4 length tights, long sleeved technical windproof and a buff and gloves! I knew I also looked like I had gone overboard wearing my Camelbak race vest. However, the previous week I had felt very dry throated from the lurgy and I wanted to be able to sip whenever I fancied. So I was carrying a modest amount of water plus a couple of snacks. I resisted using the space to add any unnecessary other gear and assured myself I could stow away any bits and bobs I wanted to take off.

Out in the cold and there was some delay as we shivered waiting to start. Then we were off, and within minutes I was feeling too warm! I soon settled down though as the sweat / wind chill balance evened out. The course was 4 loops of different lengths and shapes, all passing back through the start / finish area. This was great for spectator support. I was worried it would be complex to follow, but the organisation and course markings were excellent. Given my state, I had decided to run entirely on feel and ignore my watch, just doing my best.

I loved the route! A total mix of twisting, turning fire roads, woodland trails, mud, stones, narrow paths on rocky outcrops and a generous helping of beach near the end. No getting bored here. The field thinned out over time and a mini group I had been following disappeared into the distance. I was catching one or two people who were fading though, and soon had a man in a blue gilet to target. Kilometre after kilometre he remained just out of reach.

About halfway round it registered in my mind that it was really only spitting and not raining hard at all. I was vaguely disappointed as I love a tough weather race and had dressed to be wet! However, it was still pretty windy and as we hit the coastal sections we felt the full force of it. The waves looked amazing and I wished we had brought our wetsuits for later after all. Izzy on the other hand said that at the same points she was very relieved not to have them, as she was getting brain freeze just running!

Along the beach, blue gilet man was getting closer. There was also a short out and back section, so I got to see where the next women in front and behind were (we were all spread out). For one moment I was sure I had lost my race number and slowed as I tried to find it. How could it blow off attached to a race belt? In fact, where was the race belt? Eventually I located it tucked under my chest, with the number flapping halfway up my back.

Another racer absolutely flew past and it spurred me on to finally pass and leave behind the person who had been in view for so long! I powered up the final climb and into the finish, where the ‘warmth’ of the marquee set off a coughing fit. I ambled back out, cup of tea in hand, to watch Izzy finish. But she had had a harder time than me, falling twice and losing the will to race as a result!

In the final results, I was 5th female, 25th overall and a time just dipping under 1:42. Pretty pleased with that. I was catching 4th but needed a few more kilometres to do it, and 3rd was well ahead! On checking my watch I found that every km had been under 5 minutes and remarkably consistent until kilometres 17-20 …. If I had known that, maybe I’d have stayed more focused and pushed myself like I did in the 16km event to keep under and save myself a minute or so … Or maybe if I had seen my speed at the start I might have panicked and self-restricted thinking it was too fast. So all in all, a good race!

As for the series, it’s best 4 out of 6 and I’m racing elsewhere on the final weekend. It’s a bit of guesswork looking at the leaderboard, but I think I’m going to finish somewhere between 2nd and 7th – will have to wait and see who races next time and how fast they go 😀

We stuck it out to applaud the podium places before scuttling back to the car, changing in double quick time with no modesty and driving round the corner to the secret café with a fire, soup and cake …

Here’s a wee taster video of the event even featuring ‘blue gilet man’ (aka Paul Barry, the results tell me) – looking forward to seeing the full thing.

In two weeks after this race, I’m doing another trail half marathon but one of a very different nature – up a hill the winding way and back down again more directly, with 750m total ascent compared to the 100m of this event!! I’m intrigued to see how I find it in comparison.

Oh, and we didn’t miss out on the big waves for the weekend after all. With an easterly wind still blowing strong on Sunday, we went down to Portobello for some unusually large waves and super fun times on our doorsteps instead 🙂

Open 5 Reeth

I was beginning to believe it, but apparently I am not invincible after all and despite escaping several rounds of illness at work and at home, last week I succumbed to my first cold of the winter. I couldn’t even see who to blame it on, so it could only be ‘someone on a bus’ 😉 . I’d also had a particularly tough week at work and despite a fantastic ability normally to switch off, I needed something strong this weekend to help me forget it all! Friday and Saturday nights I was getting interrupted sleep with one of those annoying scratchy coughs, but by Sunday I was feeling more human and up for the Open 5. Lucy had done a 20 mile fell race the day before, so I was hoping we might even out.

We prepped and after a couple of puffs on my inhaler my lungs even felt in moderate working order. Off we ran and the pace was OK. Then we turned uphill. I was getting too hot, I could feel the blood thumping in my head, and if I paused to think about it I came over all dizzy. Up and up, stumbling over a stile, dodging round the bases of crags and sweat dripping into my eyes.

I ate as much as I could and kept going. Confusion arose at the cave, which we approached from the top. We were looking for it and Lucy pointed shouting ‘here’, except I did not hear her and thought she meant ‘I’ll look this way and you that’. After going round in a circle down and uphill, there she was standing waiting …

Let's just pop up there ...

Let’s just pop up there …

More running, taking the flatter path instead of the lumpy road. There was a ‘rabbit control’ van parked up, but I hadn’t seen much evidence of control, as I’d spent half the run making sure they didn’t get a bonanza of whole human leg falling into their burrow for dinner.

We caught another female pair, then set off in the wrong direction on an unmarked path. The high point that had a ‘null control’ marked on it winked at us, and I kept repeating to myself ‘at least we’re not going up there’. As Lucy announced we needed to backtrack, I was ready to pass out and decided taking my windproof off might improve matters. It did, but my legs still wobbled beneath me. Come to think of it, I pondered, have I really done much uphill running lately?

Bouncy suspension bridge on the run.

Bouncy suspension bridge on the run.

We dropped down to a river and contemplated a wet crossing and another control. Normally I’d have said yes, but I was cream crackered and wanted to get on the bikes. We ran off, picking up speed as a male pair tried to keep up, breathing hard down my neck. I thought they’d overtake but they never quite did and Lucy was having none of it…

Transition came at 1:58, which was spot on what we had aimed for. A slow changeover as I transferred some kit and tried to eat some more. Then we were off, avoiding a silly mistake and heading straight up the hill. I kept pedalling for quite a while until I was reduced to pushing. ‘Noooo’, my legs screamed! Eventually as I stumbled, Lucy took over with a double bike push, instructing me to eat more, right now. I was forever grateful for fast and easy riding over the top, an easier uphill and a fun descent, even if I should have been less chicken on it.

Ohhh please not up there, I just want to pedal!

Ohhh please not up there, I just want to pedal!

That was more or less all the mountain biking, as the rest of our controls were on the roads. Rolling up and down we still seemed to be pedalling uphill a lot of the time. We debated a few options, eventually plumping for one last hill that had 900m of off road push before a long, long tarmac descent on an empty road. In hindsight with the benefit of other people’s choices, we could have made a different decision here, and earned about 13 more points. Maybe it was worth it though, as on the way we passed Crackpot … if we’re going to make mistakes best to do it passing amusingly named places 😀

One of the many steep roads. Reeth 3 miles ... but we did not go that way!

One of the many steep roads. Reeth 3 miles … but we did not go that way!

We lost time checking the wrong side of an arched bridge for a control, and could still see the hidden cave from the run, mocking us in full and plain sight on the other side of the valley. Other than that and my throat, tummy and generally whole body complaining at me, it was an uneventful and super speedy return to Reeth.

Just under 6 minutes left and we had the transition team laughing and shouting at us to hurry up as we dived off for one more out and back up a small hill on the road. I had estimated this would take 10 minutes. The rain was falling now, but we got there in 7, turned around and got back in 3. For once I had been vaguely accurate, as I had almost been with my ’20km to go’ pronouncement 22km from the end!

We just ticked over 5 mins late, which meant 12 penalty points, but it was worth it for a 25 point control. It turned out it was true that James T wanted to do prize giving at 15.15. We stumbled in to the hall at 15:07 then carried on racing to get changed at the van and back again just in time for the start of the day’s results.

First female pair, 19th overall and a respectable, if not dazzling score. My throat and lungs were burning and I felt weebly, but had survived! Good job Lucy can race 20 miles one day and still keep pushing us along and make sure we have a good race the next. The March Open 5 is in Church Stretton in Shropshire, where I have enjoyed racing a couple of times before.

Podium

Podium

Many thanks to Open Adventure for the race, James Kirby for photos, Lucy for the lifts and my mum for pre-race accommodation!

Dales scenery. We saw a lot of this hill, both from it and looking across at it.

Dales scenery. We saw a lot of this hill, both from it and looking across at it.

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