Less than 3 weeks after finishing Ötillö, we were on the start line for Loch Gu Loch, a Scottish Highlands version of the same race. Why? Because we wanted to do at least one of the new UK races this year and this is the only one we could make. Plus, it was run by the same people behind Celtman, so we knew it would be a good event. It’s always nice to be at the first edition of a race that could become iconic 🙂
Our accommodation and race HQ was at the stunning Highland Club, an old monastery at the southern end of Loch Ness. Sadly, we had to leave our cosy beds far too early in the morning to make our way blearily to the boat that would take us to the start, leaving at 5:30 am. Our table top doubled up as a full ‘info board’ and another time I’d have pored over it. Sadly, we couldn’t see anything outside because it was dark, and I was too preoccupied eating last minute snacks (BeetIt bar), queueing for the toilet and smearing myself with chamois cream.
Urquhart Castle was the majestic setting for the start. Now it was just about light and we could admire it perched on an outcrop overlooking the loch. Once bags were dropped and photo shoots were done, we got into the allegedly very cold water. I was ready to go, but there seemed to be a long gap between getting in and the starting horn …
The general route of the race is to cross Loch Ness, climb the hill on the other side, then work back to the start, covering various smaller lochs before a final uphill sting, a trip via the many small islands of Loch Tarff and a descent back to cross Loch Ness to the finish. Total stated distance about 8km swimming and 47km running (we measured it 7.5km / 50km).
I found the first leg particularly stressful. Unlike Ötillö, there had been no run to spread us out. I tried to follow the feet of Dechlan and Lyndsey (who were sharing our apartment), but they were just a touch too fast. Not to worry, they had bright green wetsuit arms and were perfect to sight off. I know Dechlan and trusted he would go the right way.
Later I tried to draft a guy with big blue paddles, but almost got whacked in the face. Izzy had been tapping my feet, which is normal. But then suddenly it seemed as if crowds of people had swarmed up and were about to overtake us. I was panicking, thinking I was swimming like a snail, and tried to speed up. I was swallowing water and felt a bit sick. As we came in to land, Izzy swam up beside me. Turns out she was caught up in the excitement and trying to beat some people next to us!
We were on dry land and Paul (one of the organisers) shouted a well done at us. We were off up the hill. Now I had terrible stomach cramps, one ear was full of water so I couldn’t hear properly, and my feet were so cold I couldn’t feel the ground. Izzy was great, running alongside and encouraging me along. One by one my problems subsided. I shook my head a few times and managed to unblock my ear. My feet gradually came back to life. And Izzy demonstrated how to do magnificent burps, so that my own eventually eased my stomach distress!
Towards the end of the first run, a few teams were catching us. We swam a small loch and got a cheer from my coach, Scott, who was on kayak duty. Next run, a few more teams came past. It seems we had been faster swimmers and now the good runners were making their mark.
As we approached the first swim across Loch Mhor, we were ready to go. Our exits from the water still need a bit of polishing, but our entries are slick! We passed several teams milling about zipping their wetsuits up and getting kit sorted. We were straight in and swimming. We passed a couple more teams at the next aid station as we did our usual: drink a couple of cups and grab some food to eat on the way out. The piper appeared here, signalling our approach. Loved him, he kept popping up all over the place round the course!
Next up we reached Andy, marshalling a swim entrance. I knew this was the half way point. He told us what was going on at the front of the field, confirmed that we were first female pair and said we were about 8th overall. We were enjoying the swims and the terrain, which were very similar to what we’d trained on – unlike the trials of the slippery Ötillö rocks!
I think the pressure of knowing we were up front was stressing Izzy a bit. As we got to the next swim a marshal said cheerfully “first female pair!”. “Not any more!”, she blurted, as a mixed pair caught us up, with the chap having long hair! She apologised profusely … 😀
Another run and swim, and we started the longest run of the day: 16km of mixed off- and on- road, with a significant climb in the second half. Logic was telling me that our position was probably fairly secure. No other girls had caught us by the halfway point, the other people we’d left behind weren’t making ground – and if any other female pair were going to catch up, they’d have to be storming through the field to get to us. Our slick transitions and feed stops had given us an advantage, and now our endurance was kicking in.
Still, you can’t bank on anything in racing. We stayed alert to all the course markings. Some teams went wrong at a few places, but we didn’t have any difficulties following the course. Not only were we eagle eyed at every junction for potential arrows, I had also spent a lot of time memorising the map. It wasn’t a precise ‘photograph’, but I knew all the section lengths, major turns, terrain type, elevation profile and general direction.
As we climbed gradually on a section that pretended to be flat, we could see the scar of a road cresting a pass up ahead. I pointed, saying “I bet that’s where we’re going” … and so we were. We approached from a fire road and a nice path that zig-zagged up towards the viewpoint before continuing up and over the high point of the race. I’d been noting our pace and splitting the run into 5km chunks. I thought it was good news when I announced we probably only had 20-25 minutes to go to the swim. “25 minutes?!” shouted an exasperated Izzy, almost stamping her foot … Er, oops, sorry, that was meant to be encouraging!
There were beautiful views, but I was mindful of my footing. I wanted to let loose on the descent, but Izzy was more wary and was having a sugar slump. Luckily, we could see Loch Tarff below us and knew the feed station was right there.
We were both tired now. A kayaker shouted at us – “head for the green arrow!”. But it was a small arrow, and I couldn’t see it! Still, we got there and fought through heather and bracken to get over and into the next bit. We clearly had some supporters here, with one guy singing ‘here come the giii-rls!’ and shouting our names – we don’t know who you were, but thanks!! Also Scott and Judyta were here again. Scott said we looked strong – I said we felt wasted! Later he said, if you felt like that, you should have seen how the people behind looked …
We finished the penultimate swim through a dark swampy, reedy mass, emerging to face the final 6km run.
6km, doesn’t sound like much, does it? But we were soon moving only slowly round the loch across trackless heather. We saw one of the big blue arrows on a white board up ahead pointing left, then could pick out a string of red arrows dancing straight up the hill. A team in front (the ones with the big blue paddles from the first swim!) went straight on, but they were out of earshot as we shouted out to them. As we started going up, they reappeared, having realised their mistake and corrected.
Now I was using my hands and could really feel our cord pulling. Suddenly Izzy had a mini meltdown. There were threats to unclip the cord (“what good would that do?”, I say), I got shouted at when I tried to push, and offers of food were useless as she felt sick and dizzy. We slowed and I just went at her pace. So long as we kept moving, I was happy. It wasn’t far to go. I think we both kept thinking, who might suddenly appear behind us?
We got to the top and the panoramic vista laid out below us was amazing. We could see the finish, and emotion welled up in me! A suggestion to start jogging this downhill bit was met with a positive response, as was a soggy packet of Honey Stingers. We were back on it!
A couple of teams had overtaken, but as we got to the fire road, we ate and drank again, then passed them. We even drew close to blue-paddles team again as they hesitated about the right way to go. We had our doubts too, as we went through someone’s gateway and across what looked like a fancy drive. Just as we started to wonder what to do, we saw a bit of tape in a tree. Phew! Down and down we went, this run was turning out to be longer than the stated 6km. 7.1km according our gps – cheeky!
My big toe joint was killing me, but I ignored it. We jumped into the final swim just behind team 45, aka blue paddles, Jan and Matus Kriska. They were heading off at a funny angle, so I double-checked where we had to aim. We were told: just left of the abbey, the red flag. Well, red was pretty hard to see … but left of the grey towers of the abbey I could just about deal with. “So, not where they’re going?” I asked. No. So, off we went. My calf kept threatening to cramp, and I had to stop pointing my toes. Not very streamlined, but necessary!
Eventually we drew close. And then we grounded. Argh! We stood up and waded a bit, before I decided it was deep enough to swim again (i.e. knee deep). Then we swam to shore. I looked around for the dibber but was told, no not here – run for the finish! Andy was taking pictures. We took our hat and goggles off and organised ourselves for a side by side run up the steps and across the lawn.
Look at that! A tape! I’ve never got to break a finishing tape before! What excitement.
We were soon wrapped up in foil blankets, drinking hot drinks. I was feeling all emotional again, but had to laugh at Andy wearing fine moss hair under his cap. We were astonished to find we were 5th overall. In the end, it was worth almost more than the win in our class, which turned out to be emphatic. Full results here. Short film here – see if you can spot us wading at the end!
Great support from the marshals and people we knew on course. Also to other competitors we made friends with or chatted to along the way. I couldn’t get over how many people thanked me or remarked on our top tips and videos – it’s great to know people found them useful, though I apologise for not remembering or knowing who you all were! 🙂
Quite a few people have asked us how this race compares to Ötillö. I’d say it’s easier. This race is shorter and the swims are less difficult and dangerous. The terrain is more forgiving (providing, perhaps, you’re used to heather and bracken!). For comparison, we finished over 4h quicker despite ‘backing up’ with Ötillö, and our average speeds were higher. There are fewer transitions, so it’s easier to get into a rhythm. Having said all that, Loch Gu Loch has lots more hills, the swims are cold and it still counts as ‘tough’ in my book. I’ve heard it might be in the summer next year, which could make it a perfect preparation race if you happen to be doing Ötillö! It’s also a fine challenge in its own right.
Time now to let my sore toe get better, wait for the tiredness go away and dust down my mountain bike 🙂
After months of preparation we were on the start line for Ötillö at 6am in the gloom of early morning light. We’d already had two nights of ‘feels like we hardly slept at all’, experiencing an almighty thunderstorm back in Stockholm and an early start and nerves on Sandhamn. In our 3 days in Stockholm we had eaten enough to sink two battleships, had a delightful costume-only swim in a lake, kicked back in a sauna, gone for a 5km jog, contorted ourselves on a portable foam roller and met up with friends who popped over from Finland. We had left strange piles of empty beetroot juice bottles by the bins and scribbled all over my hand paddles. We were ready.
As several mixed couples had a pre-start kiss I felt left out … so I got a cheek-to-cheek and air kiss from Izzy! Then we were off. After running in silence for a minute or two Izzy said: “Thanks for doing this with me. I thought I should say it now in case I feel differently later”. I was equally grateful to be racing with her and couldn’t believe our moment was finally here.
As we got to the beach we looked across the expanse of sea to the next island. 1.7km, just over a mile. There was a strobe light, but as soon as we got in, I lost sight of it and just aimed for a suitable looking bit of land. We had plenty of other racers around us and were overtaking those who had set off fast. I got disorientated part way over, seeing rocks on the seabed below us. How was it so shallow in the middle?! The first time I got a taste of the water I was pleasantly surprised. It was almost like a salty sports hydration drink, and did not induce the sort of sounds that we get from North Sea mouthfuls (think; cat with a fur ball in its throat).
As soon as we got out we were in for a shock. It doesn’t matter how many photos you look at, how many videos you watch or how many people you speak to who have been there before. You can’t know how the terrain really is until you experience it. Slabs of wet, slippery rock and boulders. I am not the most sure-footed and Izzy felt worse. Our practice attempts at uneven get-ins and outs were no match for this!
Team after team streamed past us. I tried to stay calm and kept moving until the next short swim, when I slipped forwards. I could feel myself going and did a ‘superman’ move to distribute the impact, bashing my knee hard and scuffing my palms. Someone helped me up and we jumped right in the water. I felt a bit shaky and my knee was sore. I imagined I had cracked my knee cap, until I realised that was probably ridiculous and I had better just get on with the job in hand.
Some time later we had just 4.5km run to get to the first checkpoint. I checked the scribbles: we were well off our target pace. But, hang on! I suddenly realised we were cutting it fine to even make the cut-off, something I had not anticipated at all. We had 35 minutes, no problem for a normal run, but we had no idea what the terrain would be like and we had already been on the move for 2.5 hours. There was no way we could allow ourselves to go out of this race, let alone at 9am.
Soon we were breathing heavily and finding it hard to talk. When I asked Izzy to check our pace on her gps watch we were under 5 minutes / km. Panic spurred us on and we fell into transition with 14 minutes to spare. Little did we know it, but we were almost at the back of the field, with only about 15 teams behind.
From that point on I kept an eagle eye on the time cut offs. I knew we had to build more of a buffer. The effort had taken a lot out of us and we were using the tow. I was worried because I knew I couldn’t pull for the long 20km run to come. Izzy later said she had been feeling low as well, demoralised by our difficulties on the rocks.
Although the first swim had felt fairly tame, things were going to get more interesting. Several of the crossings had strong crosswinds, currents and waves. I am sure if I had been on holiday and stood on the rocks looking out to sea I’d have decided it wasn’t possible (or safe) to swim. But here we were, clambering in and setting off towards another elusive strobe light.
We already knew that small-looking waves on land can seem huge when you’re in them with just your head above water. But these appeared quite big to start with! A few times I’d turn to breathe and almost roll over, getting a wave right over my mouth and missing a breath.
We also had to aim to the right of where we actually wanted to go. This was quite fun, as you could physically feel the angle of the wind and currents against you, and by keeping this angle constant go in a straight line. It almost reduced the need for sighting! Which was useful, since half the time all I saw when I lifted my head up was water …
It felt dangerous and it felt exhilarating. Most of the time we were strong and effective and knew we were passing or leaving teams behind on each swim.
I did have one aiming glitch, when we came the wrong way round a rocky outcrop and got grounded in shallow water. After one swim I felt tired, so we swapped the lead for the next – and I apologise to Izzy for my inability to follow properly!
The second cut off came and went and now we started making good time, moving at the pace we had hoped to go at from the start. We still only had 31 minutes in hand though. We tried to be efficient in feed stations, stopping to drink two or three cups of water or energy drink and picking up food to eat whilst we walked out and kept moving.
The infamous ‘pig swim’ loomed large. I almost wished no-one had told us anything about this difficult swim! But in the briefing we were informed some people might take an hour over it. Really? For 1400m? At any rate, I was determined this would not be us and set my stop watch as we got in.
We emerged smiling and triumphant on the other side after 29 minutes of swimming. My swimming mojo had returned 🙂 . We had spectators here, cheering and handing us a Twix bar. Izzy asked me something but I could only say “I’m trying to climb up these rocks, eat a Twix and do a wee all at the same time … but I will answer when at least one of those things is finished with!” We passed through the third cut off with 61 minutes to spare.
The next section of the race is a bit of a haze. I am not sure what happened, but we slowed down somewhat. My knee was sore from both the fall and the slight injury I was carrying from an adventure race in Ireland 5 weeks earlier. We were tiring of the hard conditions underfoot. We were also moving inexorably closer towards the 20km run section, which I was more afraid of than the pig swim.
Finally we were there, 55 minutes before the cut off. I was doing a lot of mental calculations about how fast we needed to move to make the final time cut. I knew it should be OK but also knew we were both tired. Our legs were sore and quads were burning. I burbled out loud to Izzy who pretended to sound interested, in much the same way as she had when I tried to describe our swims against the wind in terms of vectors of the forces acting against us relative to our direction of intended travel …
The result was that we had to run each km in at least 8 minutes. I decided to set my stopwatch and ask for a distance check every 8 minutes. All very well in theory, though by the time we were getting to 12 x 8 and beyond, the maths was making my head hurt. Not to worry; it was a great distraction.
After 8 minutes we’d done 1.3km. After 16, 2.5km. Then a tricky section where we only covered 1km in the time slot. Soon we were back on wide tracks and asphalt roads. The km ticked by and we gained 200-300m every 8 minutes.
We rewarded ourselves with a pack of Honey Stingers (pomegranate) halfway to the first feed station. We passed through someone’s back garden and a lady with a team list shouted “Go Rosemary! Rule Britannia!” – now that’s dedicated supporting! Small children sat on the verges shouting “Heja! Heja!” and our feet fell into the rhythm of their chants.
As we stuck to our own pace, we steadily passed teams. 10 of them, in fact. I’m sure I saw a snake as we tripped along, but Izzy was beyond caring (unless it ate her, in which case, she stated, she’d be pleased it had ended the run). Enthusiasm was dipping somewhat but we pushed on, maintaining an average speed of 6:09/km, which I was pretty pleased with considering we were already nearly 50km in to this race at the start of it! To Izzy’s displeasure I insisted we wriggled back into our wetsuits before the start of the next swim, on a section that had us walking anyway. And soon we were back at the sea, the final cut off, 39 minutes to spare.
After a moment where I celebrated and Izzy greeted a playful dog, we just had the final section to go. We were going to do this thing. A bit of running, a bit of swimming.
The trouble was that we no longer trusted our legs. They were wobbly on the uneven stones and refused to work as we hauled ourselves out of each swim. The transitions we’d practised so often were getting slower and more fiddly and no sooner had we got our legs working on the ‘runs’ (walks?) it was time to swim again. Finding the route, watching for the colourful marker strips in the trees that had shown the way like a dance all day. Sometimes we couldn’t see them even as they were right in front of our eyes. Our pace had dropped again. Perhaps without the focus of the cut offs our minds were less strong to will our tired bodies on.
At last we started the final 3.2km run. We forced ourselves to ignore our screaming muscles and run properly. As we looked up ahead I remarked “oh, a phalanx of teams”. We drew closer and saw that Pippa Middleton (celebrity sister of Kate Middleton, royal, in case you’re not up with these things … ) was amongst them. Our friends had urged us to make sure we beat her, and I admit we were surprised she had still been in front of us! We might have sped up somewhat as we gunned for the line. 1.5km more and we were faced with a cruel uphill finish. Then we were there.
We celebrated, we moved forwards, I collapsed onto a bench and started crying from all the emotion. We had actually made it! We had (as is my wont) under-estimated the difficulty of the undertaking. We had our highs and lows, times when we felt weary and wondered how we’d ever finish in time, and times when we were high on the craziness of what we were doing. Now we had done it. We had finished a World Championship race and we were proud.
I won’t lie. The week after has been tough … talk about post-race blues! The body and joints are tired and achey, my knee hurts and my emotional state is unpredictable at best 😉 . The thoughts of ‘we could have done better’ are creeping in, and we have moved from ‘not next year’ to ‘maybe next year, if we could get in again’. We both want to conquer those slippery rocks that drained us of so much physical and mental energy and time at the start!
Izzy is emphatic that it is the toughest thing she has ever done (despite several Ironmans and Celtman under her belt). I probably agree: multi-day adventure races are a test of sleep deprivation and endurance but the intensity is much lower.
I still keep reminding myself that only 1 in 4 people who want to do this race are selected to start. We swam 10km and ran 65km in one day. Two things I have never achieved before. I will hold onto those facts, even though they seem unreal 🙂 .
Many thanks to our sponsors and supporters for this race: Head (wetsuit and goggles) Gococo socks (blister free compression heaven) and BeetIt (nitrate power). It has been pointed out I should thank my long-suffering colleagues, friends, family and boyfriend for putting up with almost a year of Ötillö chat, trials and tribulations. Also my coach, Scott, for his sage advice. And finally, my straight-talking physio Graham, who has endless patience, a cheeky sense of humour and without whom I might not have even made it to the start line.
Now all we need to do is recover enough to do it all over again at Loch Gu Loch – a Scottish equivalent based around Loch Ness, but slightly shorter. Then I can get my bike back out and slide gracefully into winter racing.
According to the race briefing notes 🙂
This bit was easy. Izzy and I are racing at Ötillö in September and we needed to practice! We chose Borås swimrun, to the east of Gothenburg. It fitted our schedule, was relatively cheap and easy to get to and a good first race distance to try. The format was similar, but instead of swimming between and running across islands, we swam in little pools, zig-zagged across a large lake and ran up a lot of hills. Overall, 14 runs totalling 29km and 13 swims totalling 5km.
Unfortunately, Izzy got sick on Monday night before the race and didn’t eat for two days. Luckily, by Thursday she had enough energy to pack, but even at the airport on Friday she was feeling a bit unsteady. Uh oh! Saturday’s plan was to eat and eat …
Well, we didn’t use the website because a friend at my Italian class had told us all about airbnb. I’d never heard of it before, but after a quick search, we were booked in to stay with the lovely Peter and Monica just outside town. More on their generous hosting later, but this worked out really well for us.
Almost everyone at Ötillö chops the arms and legs off their wetsuits. This makes it easier to run, reduces the risk of chaffing your bendy bits (backs of knees, insides of elbows) and means you can easily pull your wetsuit off your upper body to run if you want to.
Despite laughing when I read a race report from last year, where the competitor had chopped their wetsuit at the start line, we found ourselves with this job still to do on Saturday! One of the advantages of staying with a family was we could ask to borrow scissors. Even better, Monica works with textiles and is a designer, so we got a proper pair to use!
We spent all morning drawing lines on our suits and cutting bits off them. This was followed by some intensive dry land transition practice, which was when Peter arrived home. We hastily explained why we were running round his house, joined with a bungee cord and wearing wetsuits, pull buoys, swimming hats and goggles. He just looked slightly bemused 😀
We had hired a car so it was easy to drive out to the race area in the afternoon and have a look around. We went on a little walk round some of the course, and I studied the maps. It was all becoming clear what we had to do, though looking down the lake and knowing we would be right at the far end, out of sight, was a bit daunting!
I also wrote all the route stages on a small piece of paper and laminated it in an unused membership card holder. After I had done that and looked at the map many times, I had the route firmly ‘tattooed’ onto my mind!
We could feel the wind buffeting the car on the way to the start on Sunday morning. But when we arrived the lake (Öresjö) looked fairly calm. I mused that perhaps further down, it would be less sheltered and the wind would have got some waves up. I wish I’d been wrong!
The water hadn’t warmed up as much as the organisers had hoped, so the long swim at the end had been shortened. We did still have to do 5km in total, with one leg of 1.3km. The water was about 11ºC. Cold, but not unlike our training conditions. Unfortunately, we hadn’t yet swum in a wetsuit with missing bits, but there was nothing we could do about that now!
With about 10 minutes to go we were standing in all our kit ready to go and listening to the briefing. I was looking at everyone else’s clothing and kit choices, to see what we could learn. Suddenly I noticed timing chips on people’s ankles. Argh! Where was ours?! Izzy sprinted back to the car to retrieve it just in time!
Then we were on the start line. Izzy suddenly said to me ‘Don’t go charging off at the start!’ I looked at her, surprised. ‘But I thought that’s exactly what we’d agreed to do, to avoid the queue on the hill?’. ‘I’ve changed my mind’ she said, and I could tell from the look of panic on her face that I’d better listen! So we ran to the hill at a steady pace and walked up.
It was really not a bad strategy, as for the next hour or so we just steadily caught and passed team after team. We didn’t need to ‘burn our matches’ so early in such a long race.
I was sure that we could save a lot of time just being smooth in our transitions. As we neared the top of the hill, I knew the first short swim was close. We went through the routine we’d rehearsed the day before and would repeat throughout the day:
‘zipped up?’ / ‘zipped!’
‘unlooped bungee?’ / ‘yes!’
‘goggles on?’ / ‘goggles on!’
‘paddles ready?’ / ‘ready!’
Then, right at the water’s edge: ‘pullbuoy round?’ / ‘yes!’
‘OK, in we get … ready to go?’ / ‘let’s go!!’
The middle section of the race was one of the hardest. After a number of shorter runs and swims, we had our first big crossing of Öresjö. We were swimming well, despite the waves hitting us from the right. I seemed less thirsty after the three big swims, probably due to the amount of lake I accidentally swallowed! This won’t be so convenient in the sea water of Ötillö.
We overtook a lot of people here, but at one point I started to feel cold and irrationally panicky. I reminded myself of the race briefing: ‘if you get cold, keep swimming!’. I was very relieved to make land on the other side. I think we were being filmed as I shouted ‘we made it!’. A short run round a hill and we were heading back across the lake. It didn’t seem so bad the second time.
We were racing using a bungee tow cord. This is quite standard in adventure racing but a strange concept to many triathletes. In the water, it kept us close together. When it was busy, it meant we didn’t lose each other. When we had to cross wide expanses of open water, with the wind whipping up waves and creating white horses it was reassuring for me to know Izzy was never more than 3m away. Practically speaking, by removing the need to keep checking on where we each were meant one less thing to think about. This was significant when also trying to breathe, sight and swim fast enough to stay warm!
We did learn it was easy to get tangled up in a bungee when getting out though – something we’re already thinking about how to fix!
The second use is on land, if one of the pair is feeling stronger than the other. I was towing Izzy behind me, feeling the tug on the cord as I gave a helping hand. A race like this is all about teamwork and getting to the finish line as quickly as possible – but still together!
As we passed spectators and aid stations, the support was amazing. Every time, people cheered and clapped and shouted. Many things were said to us. Here’s our quick guide to conversing in Swedish during a race:
|They say||You say|
|Anything that sounds cheerful, enthusiastic or welcoming||Hej hej!|
|Anything preceding the offer of food or water, or showing the way||Tack!|
|Anything that sounds like important information||OK!|
It was funny when we’d get into the water and Izzy would ask me ‘did you get all that?’. I’d say ‘um, swim to the red flag?’ … I wondered what else there was to say. Perhaps, watch out for killer piranhas?
After running up and down another hill it was time for the longest swim, of 1.3km. The house and garden we were aiming for looked obvious when we started. But soon we seemed to lose sight of other competitors, and sometimes I couldn’t see where we had to go. Each time I sighted, I might see the house we were aiming for, or I might get a view of nondescript land or a wave instead! Halfway over I felt a bit alone and had to stop to double check we were going the right way. We were. My pullbuoy kept working its way down my leg, which was annoying.
At last we could see the landing flag clearly, but there were reeds between us and it. We tried to swim through but they were sharp and unyielding! How frustrating. We had to detour upwind to get round them. Other swimmers came in higher than us and were fine. If there’s a next time I’ll remember this!
Then we hit another patch. They looked smaller this time and we wanted this swim to be over. I could feel my buttocks shaking, whether from cold or tension, I wasn’t sure. We just barged through this time, getting scratches on face, arms and legs. Izzy, who was behind me, seemed to emerge less scathed – perhaps my paddles had hacked a path through!
We were out, running, but soon back to a river. We got some more unintelligible instructions, but it turns out these ones might have been important. I just got in and started going upriver. I’d told Izzy this was a short swim, and distance-wise, it was. But the current was strong, and the water tasted funny. We kept hitting logs beneath the surface and I saw some people resting at the sides. It was taking forever to get anywhere and I was desperately looking for the exit round every bend.
Soon enough, up ahead I could see fallen trees blocking the way, and a clutch of other racers. I paused to tread water and see what was going on, but was getting dragged backwards! This was quite scary, so I powered forward and caught onto a log. It moved and I had to let go as it floated away. Then I grabbed another and hung on, feeling my legs pulling away from me downstream until Izzy was there too and we could talk. Everyone was getting out, so we followed them and made our way along the shore briefly before jumping back in for a short stretch.
Suddenly we were at an aid station and a timing mat. There were loads of people shouting and cheering. I felt dazed and slightly traumatised!!
As we approached aid stations we’d check what we doing. Were we stopping, and what for? This way we could coordinate and move on quickly without getting annoyed with each other or wasting time. We did carry some food and water and were testing how well this worked. We learnt: soft bottles down a wetsuit leg can easily work their way out. A hard bottle in a flipbelt stays put but is slightly awkward to get in and out. Pockets on the backs of jerseys are hard to use. Pockets in the fronts of wetsuits are easy to use.
I was surprised how difficult it all was. Stuart, a former Ötillö racer, had warmed us that the constant in and out of cold water and change of activity was hard, and he was right. Throughout the race, there was so much to think about. Keeping track of the stages, knowing when a swim was coming up and preparing to transition, planning around aid stations and sighting on the swims. All this will have taken energy and added to the physical demands of constantly getting cold and having to warm up again. It was definitely not the same as swimming 5km then running 29km!
On we pressed. This is the first time Izzy and I have raced together. I was looking for clues about how she was feeling; in footfall, breathing, talking and the amount of pull on the tow rope. As we moved along the longest run sections, I could tell she was finding it hard as well.
Even so, we were still steadily catching and passing quite a few male pairs. Despite how we felt, the results show that we were strong in the section after the timing mat, making up ground on (though not catching) the team in front of us, and moving away from the team behind us.
A random short swim across a pond and back was actually a relief, despite us forgetting to zip up our suits. I knew the end was in sight from here, and kept pulling Izzy along and trying to crack jokes. I think I managed one or two laughs, though my ‘chariots of fire’ rendition near the end may have left something to be desired!
We had absolutely no idea where we stood in the placings. It’s possible that some of the excited cheering was telling us something, but we didn’t know. Even if we’d kept track at the start it would be impossible to see who was passing who on the swims.
About an hour before the end, I thought I’d seen a girl climbing out in front of us, but wasn’t sure. I knew in any case that we were going as hard as we could, and that what seems close in the water can be much further on land. I decided to minimise potential stress and kept quiet.
As we finished, we got a hug and medal from the race director. Then he told us ‘you are 3rd female team!’. We were ecstatic and hugged each other and jumped up and down and hugged him again, even though we were wet. In fact, the 2nd placed girls had been just two minutes in front and had known we were behind, so had felt the pressure! 1st place were a long way ahead. We were 15th overall out of 80 finishers, though several teams had to withdraw due to the cold and plenty of others appeared not to start at all. Full results here. We were delighted. This was our first ever swimrun, our first race as a team and we did it off the back of a bad week for Izzy.
We also learnt so much that will help us in September. Right now the thought of doing double that distance is daunting, but at least we are prepared!
“We’re vegetarian. Do you have anything?”.
“You like pasta, yes? You could pick the chicken out?”
Er … No thanks, maybe we’ll just go and buy a cake and drink tea out of a glass before heading into town for a giant Thai tofu curry!
We got home tired but satisfied. Peter and Monica had put the sauna on and we were soon indulging in ‘therapeutic’ heat treatment. Something we’d have never got elsewhere!
Many thanks to our sponsors and supporters. Especially Head, whose wetsuit was invaluable and designed for the job. Also BeetIt for giving us the best start and Chia Charge for on the move nutrition and post-race protein bar. Next time we should also be wearing Gococo compression socks – more on those later!
Finally, thanks to Jonas Colting for putting on a great race. I’m sorry I was concentrating too hard on everything else to admire more of the scenery. But he did the most entertaining briefing notes I’ve ever read and everything went smoothly. Prizes were running shorts from Salming and free entry for next year. Let’s see how we feel about that later! 😀
Given that our target race for the year, Ötillö, involves 10km of swimming, Izzy and I decided to enter the USwim 5km race at Salford Quays. This is my boyfriend Andy’s local spot, so it was quite convenient! Compared to several other swim races we’ve looked at, the entry fee was reasonable as well.
So on Saturday morning we made our way over by train and tram, moving from a state of calm: ‘oh, are we really racing today?’ to nerves: ‘argh, we really are racing today!’. Sign on was as simple as possible. We were crossed off the list, handed a hat and had our number written on our hand. All we had to do was make a trip to the shopping centre to visit the toilets, eat our BeetIt bars and get changed!
Although it wasn’t gloriously sunny, it still felt warmer than it had at home, and without the biting wind. The water was reputedly about 12 degrees, which we were happy with. After giving some interested people the lowdown on swimrun and our special wetsuits, I attached my gps running watch to my goggle strap to see how far we really swam and was ready to go.
It was a mass start with swimmers doing 1.5km, 3.8km and 5km races altogether, but wearing different coloured hats. Ours were gold. I started at the edge of the group but soon realised I was missing drafting opportunities. We had 5 laps to do. Just over halfway through the first one, I could see a group in front and a big gap to me. I wondered whether our race positions were already decided!
Round and round we went. After the murk of Threipmuir, the water was very clear. We could see fish and, when the sun peeked out, the water sparkled beneath us. Halfway into lap 3, I caught up with two other 5k racers. I started drafting the one who was going in the straightest line, with the intention of overtaking shortly, but he sped up! I just stayed on his heels as best I could. He wasn’t bad at sighting apart from one mad veering off course. He turned out to be a great motivator and I needed it. The beeps in my ear from my watch were telling me that each lap was a little over 1km. At the end of 3 laps I was beginning to feel the effort and thinking we were getting beyond the point of my normal training swims.
We were soon catching people finishing the other races on their short laps, which was fun. Just before the end of lap 4, as my calf threatened to cramp, someone in a gold hat came charging past. Argh! I’d been lapped! But I was weary and had problems with trapped wind in my stomach. This sometimes happens when I swim hard and I haven’t worked out why. I managed to force out a few burps for temporary relief.
Start of lap 5 and my new companion sped up! It was all I could do to hang on. I told myself to keep trying because it was a race and therefore supposed to be hard. I’m not used to this feeling when swimming. We caught a guy at the far end who tried to go with us but couldn’t. We also overtook a few others, but it was difficult to tell if they were on the same lap and fading, or whether we were lapping them. Despite a straightforward rectangular course in the quays, you could still be some lateral distance from other swimmers so it was hard to judge what was going on.
I thought the final leg would never end. In a moment of inattention, my buddy got away from me and I couldn’t swim back to him. I was feeling a bit weak but refused to give up. As we approached the finish, there was a ramp under the water. As it got closer, I couldn’t look at the floor beneath me without feeling totally disorientated. But I couldn’t swim with my eyes shut either! Finally I was there. I shouted out my number and held up my hand before crawling out.
Wow, I was definitely ‘fuzzy wuzzy’ and had to have a sit down. Andy had done the 3.8k race and luckily had finished about 5 or 6 minutes in front of me and could take photos! He seemed surprised to see me so soon … I was surprised Izzy wasn’t in first, but just 4 minutes later, there she was, looking in a slightly better state than me. Although I’d been thinking our swimrun session with paddles on Thursday night hadn’t been ideal preparation for a race, it turned out she’d also done a hard set that morning! I think we’ll be well matched when we race as a team.
I had a friendly chat with the chap I’d been racing with. The fun thing about doing swimming races is that they are full of, well, swimmers! He was going faster than you’d assume from his age and physique and he’d put many typical triathlete types to shame in the water. I liked him as he was totally straightforward, telling me: “I may be a tortoise, not a hare, but when you came up to me I wasn’t letting you overtake!” Quite right too, and probably just what I’d have thought if our roles had been reversed … 🙂
I got cold quite quickly so we changed into more clothes than would seem necessary for what was turning into a very pleasant day. Izzy and I both tried out our flapjack bars from the ChiaCharge sample pack. Mmm, very tasty! They were soft, sweet, oaty and we both savoured the salty flakes. It was also good to know those little chia seeds were giving us an extra post-workout protein boost! I was pleased I had another with me for my planned run the next day.
Prize giving happened quickly. At first I was announced as 3rd, but there had been a mix up. I was demoted to 4th! It’s not the first time that this has happened to me, but it was all realised and resolved instantly, so I was not distraught. The first three girls finished within 4 minutes of each other and I was another 8 back, so I didn’t feel hard done by. I think Izzy and I were 4th and 5th girls, but we’re waiting for the results to check and see how we did overall. I measured that we swam 5.3km and my time was 1h27 mins. I’m pleased with that anyway as it’s been well over 10 years since I swam so far.
It was time to go and find food and cake!
The next day I ran 26.8km in the hills, making it an almost ‘Borås swimrun weekend’. In two weeks time I’ll have to do the same again, but a little bit further, in one go and with even more hills! In the meantime, we’ve still got some kit stuff to sort out and test. Time is running out!
So, it’s been some time since I got over excited in the office about getting to race Ötillö this year. You can read more about it here.
Every year, in about October or November, I start thinking about what my ‘big race next year’ might be. In 2012 it was Celtman. I devoted 2013 to triathlon, particularly the Scottish middle distance championships. In 2014 it was all about Itera.
I like to have something to work towards, something that I might not be able to achieve tomorrow, or next month, but that is doable in 9 months’ time. I also like endurance races, something quirky and not too mainstream.
So, at the end of last year my eye alighted on Ötillö. I’ve looked at this race several times before and decided it wasn’t for me due to the ‘excessive’ amount of running (65km in total). However, the effect a couple of expedition length adventure races can have on you is that what before were seemingly daunting distances provoke a reaction akin to ‘oh, only …?’. I also got inspired by an episode of the Adventure Show (an ace BBC2 Scotland programme, which airs sort-of monthly, following adventurous races and other goings on!). There was a segment on two chaps running up and down mountains, looking free and comfortable. I wanted to be like them and thought why can’t I run further??
And so the wish was born. With a lack of other options grabbing my eye, I set about finding a race partner. This was easier said than done. I encountered a variety of reasons for being turned down, ranging from being a teacher and having to work on a Monday, being too busy studying for exams, concern over getting too cold in the water, expecting a baby, not being able to swim and plain old ‘don’t have time to train for that’. I was also ideally looking for someone who I knew, located somewhere nearby (ish) and of a similar ability to me in both swim and run. I didn’t want big mismatches in either discipline as I thought it could become frustrating.
Eventually, as I almost gave up hope, I found Izzy … so close to home I couldn’t believe I didn’t think of her earlier! She’s even in the same club as me and we had a close race at the inaugural Celtman. Even better, she said ‘yes!’ and the race was on to get our application submitted.
Since then I have been training! Lots of running. If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know I had problems with my hip back in October. After several physio sessions and some determined doing-of-prescribed-exercises, I have been going from strength to strength – pun intended! Whereas the last few years I managed to race on about 20-25km a week, if I was lucky, I can now squeeze in 50km a week and I’m going faster. I find myself wondering since when did running become a valid form of transport? I run to work, the pool and even friend’s houses (“hello, how are you, may I use your shower?”).
Swim training has been interesting. I have found that I can now keep up with the front guys in my lane and go faster than I have for many years. I suspect that I have not got physically better, but that there are strong psychological factors at play. I know I need to swim harder, there is a reason to get better at it, and I therefore believe I need to / can have a go at keeping up with them. 10km of swimming is a rather different prospect to a 1.5km triathlon bimble 😀 .
There have been other things to think about too. Like getting to know Izzy better (we’d only really spoken a handful of times before), reading up about the race and getting kit sorted.
In this regard, we’re delighted to announce that Head Swimming are sponsoring us! They are the only company to offer a full line up of swimrun specific wetsuits. This sport is really popular in Nordic countries, where the brand already has a strong following. We are lucky to be able to train and race in a top of the range suit, so we’ll have no excuses there! If you’re doing any swimrun events and want to know more about what to look out for, just ask. More on that later, with a wetsuit review to come 🙂 .
We’ve also started experimenting with paddles, pull buoys and run tows. We have two great options for open water swimming nearby, but the water has barely warmed up enough to get in (for me, at least!). We braved it twice last week, and are getting used to swimming in shoes and running in a wetsuit.
I like to build my race season to support my big target event. The trail race at the start of this month was a great test of my running legs. Next up is a 5km swimming race. I’m not worried about going the distance, even though this will be the furthest I’ve swum for many years. Rather, I’m keen to feel strong and fast! Although it will be warmer ‘down south’ in Salford Quays, a bit of speed won’t go astray in helping me stay toasty 😀 .
It’s also been a bit of a whirlwind organising a ‘practice’ swimrun event under race conditions. With a last minute change of plans, we’re heading out to do Borås swimrun (near Gothenburg, Sweden) in less than three weeks’ time (gulp). It’s an event that’s about a ‘half distance’ Ötillö, but with more transitions per km and significantly more ascent on the run. This is focussing our minds nicely! Meanwhile I just need to learn how to pronounce Swedish words. “Er-Till-Er” ? “Bor-oarse” ?
Keep an eye out for more progress reports. You’ll be able to read about how we’re getting on here, at 220triathlon.com and sleepmonsters.com. And if you’re doing a similar event and want top tips, look out for our advice articles for Loch Gu Loch entrants. This will be a great swimrun event based around Loch Ness on 26th Sep. We plan to be there too, assuming we’ve survived the Swedish version! We’re learning as we go along and are more than happy to share what we find out.
Have you heard of Ötillö?
People have been asking me for a few months what my plans are for this year. I’ve had to hum and ha, because I knew what I wanted to do, but didn’t know if I would be able to do it.
Ötillö is the SwimRun World Championship held in the Stockholm archipelago. In a team of two, you start on one island at the top and make your way across over 20 more, swimming between them and running across them until you get to the end!
This is the 10 year anniversary. The race is hugely popular and over-subscribed. There are three ways to get in:
1. Qualify in one of four set races
2. Selection by merits
3. Random draw
After I set my heart on this race, the first challenge was finding someone willing and able to do it with me! Just two weeks before the closing date, I hooked up with Izzy. Perfect! She is in the same club as me and we are very similar ability. At Celtman we finished within 4 minutes of each other.
The next challenge was making our merit application. As well as listing our top race results from the past two years, we had 500 characters to convince the organisers to give us one of only 6 merit spots for female pairs 😕 .
Tension built in the run up to the announcements. We heard that there were more than four applicants for each space. Then we were told the merit selections would be made two days early. On Wednesday morning I was in a state of high tension as I checked down the list as soon as it was published. Would we be judged good enough? Were we the sort of team they were looking for to be a part of this race?
Past the male pairs, onto female, past race qualifying listings, onto merits. Not there, not there, then … last on the list, there were our names!! I leapt out of my chair and ran down the office making excited squeaking noises 😀 .
More about the race, why I wanted to do it and tales from our build up to come. But for now, here’s our team description: