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Breca Gower swimrun

This race on the Gower peninsula was a few weeks ago, right in the middle of our heatwave … This time, I am going to let the photos do most of the talking!

The first run was a mass start down to Worm’s Head. It was quite early in the day, so was not too hot just yet. We’re not actually leading the race here, but I like the photographer who has made it look like that!

Mass start

First swim was over to Worm’s Head – not advised / allowed unsupervised! But the race was timed to go over when it was safe. We were on the tow, but quickly changed our minds once we landed. This was the most technical part of the race, with rocks and beds of tiny mussels and scrambly bits to get over.

View out to Worm’s Head

The next swim was across a big bay, with grand cliffs to one side. It was here I saw an actual SHARK! It was no Jaws, but was slinking along, shark-like, on the seabed. We carried on swimming and when I remembered to tell Izzy later she was quite disbelieving – until she saw one herself on the next swim! You have been warned if you fancy swimming here 😉

There be sharks …

The coastline was pretty and we had some interesting entrance and exits from the smaller bays, like this one.

One of the exits from sea to land

In other places, we came ashore onto wide sandy bays. Did I mention yet that it was hot? Well, it was baking, which meant there were plenty of other people just having a nice day out, swimming and paddling. It was hard to see the flags on some of the exits, so I would just aim for the place the paddle boarders directed us to, and try not to mow down any casual swimmers or paddlers on the way in 😀

Dodge the people just having a nice day out at the beach

I already mentioned the sharks, but there were also some truly enormous jellyfish. We had found a dead one on the beach before the race. I was glad we did, because we looked them up and knew they were harmless barrel jellyfish. Despite that, it was still disconcerting to find ourselves swimming in close proximity to so many of them that I lost count. Eek!

We found this washed up barrel jellyfish before the race

There were a couple of longer runs following the coastal path. Although you don’t go up any ‘hills’ (not until the end…), it is up and down all the time and the sun was really hotting up. Add to this some stony sections and the occasional big sand dune, and it was quite hard work. Pretty, though.

This run was quite hard work – all of it was along the beach. The sand was mostly firm, but also very wrinkled in a way that was not wide enough for a foot!

The beach run that went on and on

We were following small red arrows, minimally placed at key junctions. At one point, we were sent up a steep wee hill to a gate. We met some walkers coming down, telling us it was the wrong way and we should go along the other path, like the ‘sprinters’ had the previous day. We hesitated. The teams in front had all gone this way and not turned back. The arrow went this way and it was a different race to yesterday. In the end we carried on. It was looking unlikely as we were on a road, but still no one came back. There were no markers, but that was not unusual … I found someone’s reusable cup in a hedge so we knew at least one team had come this way!

Eventually we met a man who said we were definitely going the wrong way for Brandy Cove and he helpfully gave us directions to the quickest way there. We had added about a km to the route, but I think what positions we lost, we mainly made up for again.

Going the wrong way. See the clear coastal path on the map? That is the way!

By the way, GarminConnect seems to think it was 16 degrees. It is wrong. See watch temperature! This was the view when we finally found the elusive Brandy Cove.

The run down to Brandy Cove

It was always a relief to get in the water, though it was so warm we never really got cold before it was time to get out again! So we had to wrestle our wetsuits down for almost every run, else we would have over-heated. We ate and drank more than usual and I loved the salty potatoes at the aid stations. Also a word for the volunteers, who were all cheerful and amazing. The same can be said of many of the spectators too. It was fantastic at one place to find everyone on the beach clapping and cheering as we got out and ran off!

Swim exit

A few of the later swims were designed so that we started in one bay, and swam round some rocks into the next one along. These feel like mini adventures as you’re not sure what you’ll find round the corner.

Several swims involved going round the point to the next bay

Some of the entry spots were quite ‘interesting’ as well.

Some swim entries were interesting

As we got closer to Mumbles (which is a relatively big town), the path was better made and we saw some ‘features’ decorating the trail.

Checking out the race route features beforehand

Eventually we got to the final run. I thought we would be close to 7h. This was a number I had picked out of the air as a target time. Often I plan in meticulous detail, but hadn’t had the time or energy to do so for this race. It was based roughly on the times from people last year, and because it was a round number of hours.

As we started the final run I was unsure we would make it. The first km out of the water was up a hill and I knew there was more to come as we had checked this bit out exploring the area in the days before the race.

Trig point on the final run – the hill is a sting in the tail

I thought we were doomed until we came a bit closer. I suddenly realised there was a chance we could do it, despite the fact the tow was getting tighter and tighter. I yelled encouragement to Izzy, whose retort I won’t repeat 😉 But then we rounded the corner, down a small drop, across a busy road in a fortuitous gap, dash down through the trees and round the corner …

We made it! 6:59:22 ! Even better, we were 1st female pair, 21st overall. Results here.

The finishing area had shade, a shower, barbecue (including veggie stuff) and ice cream, so we hung around for a while 🙂 In fact it was hard to leave, because by then it had become too hot to move in the sun, but it had to be done! I felt really wiped out that evening but recovered quickly, so I think it was more the effect of the heat than the physical effort (great as it was!).

All smiles at the end, sitting in shade

Thanks to the organisers and all involved – a race I’d recommend even though I had to get up very early. Top tips – stay on the coastal path and watch out for the wildlife 😀

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Isles of Scilly Swimrun – Ötillö world series

This was the third year for us back in the Isles of Scilly. I don’t repeat races more than twice very often, but this one is special, and Izzy swayed me (it didn’t take much!).

Like last year, we put it in the middle of a week in Cornwall, reducing travel hassle as much as possible and enjoying being tourists somewhere hot, sunny, friendly and full of bees and butterflies! The flight over in an 8-seater plane was also pretty exciting.

First swim exit

I went into this race with a totally different vibe to normal. It was our first race of the year, I wasn’t sure how well recovered from UTS50 I was and we had no concerns about placing, points or qualification. Our plan was to race our best but to enjoy it too! No time targets in hand, except for the cut offs. After checking into the same B&B as last year and getting over panics about where to eat every night (the biggest stress on the island), we were ready to go.

Our private beach one afternoon

It was hot again, but we knew we could handle that from last year. We didn’t rush on the first run up the road. I had inspected the line for the first swim both from land and boat, having got it a bit wrong last year. No better this! Doing what I thought was careful sighting, I ended up with a mass of seaweed and a rocky outcrop between me and the landing point. I was pretty sure getting out and running over the rocks was against the rules, so we had to dogleg round and I gave up working out where to go, just following the line everyone else took.

Me by the ‘where’s wally thingy’ – a landmark on the St Martin’s run

On exiting, we had a mass of seaweed draped all over the towline! A short run and we were back in the sea. This took much longer than last year as we were going directly into a strong current. When we got out I was very cold, but knew it would be a matter of minutes before I thought the opposite.

And so it went on. The support this year was perhaps even better – if that is possible. The race is like a tourist event on the islands, with the Tourist Information handing out leaflets explaining what it’s all about. Everywhere we went, we were stopped for a chat about it. People we passed were applauding and shouting out, telling us we were awesome … I felt it!

Dancing dolphins on Tresco, just before a swim entry

We were warned of some currents on the shorter swims, but they didn’t seem too bad and we didn’t get stung by jellyfish this year. The two longer runs were getting hot, but we pushed on through and finally faced the last long swim back to the ‘mainland’. The marshals told us the tide was slack… a relief! Top tip if you do this race – a good sighting point (in the absence of crazy currents) are the trees that look like giant triffids on the horizon – aim just to the right of those! I never saw the buoys until we passed them, but our line was pretty good. The landing was in sight but never seemed to arrive for a long time. My arms were just about dropping off as well.

Sprint finish

Time to warm up again on the final run. Izzy had her ‘traditional’ tumble, nothing too serious, and we stopped at the feed station to pull down our suits. On we went, to and fro with some other couples we’d run with on St Martin’s as well – we were better swimmers! The last run is still one of the longest, but just doesn’t feel it. I think it’s because you know the end is close, and you’re back into all the crowds of support.

We both managed a sprint finish and after a while I was happy to get up, collect a veggie burger and amble back to the BnB to eat it in the sunshine, stopping for some chats and to cheer other racers coming in on the way, of course 🙂

We were only a little slower than last year and some of that was down to the swims. However, I didn’t tow as hard, so we reckon Izzy was faster! I think the effects of the ultra still lingered – easy to underestimate the impact of a race like that. We were 7th women’s team – a reflection of the ever increasing depth of the field. 42nd overall out of 117 starters, which still seemed pretty reasonable 😉 Results here.

We had a lovely rest of the week and can offer tourist suggestions if needed! We got very lucky with one final swim, through Zawn Pyg … nothing to do with swimrun but perhaps the most (or second most) exhilarating swim I have ever done (the other was one of the swims at Ötillö the first year we did it). Perfect end to the holiday.

Ötillö World Series – 1000 Lakes – The Double

Izzy and I had been targeting the swimrun rankings and competition this year. However, the rules for the prizes were changed near the end of the season, and to win we suddenly found ourselves contemplating entering both the sprint and the main Ötillö world series ‘1000 Lakes‘ races in Germany at the start of October. We went for a run in the Pentlands after work one evening and decided to do it …

Autumn colours just starting

So after arriving on Thursday and settling into our fantastic apartment, we went for a short run, which I managed to keep to the agreed length! And on Friday a swim in glorious sunshine. We nearly couldn’t find our way back in to our landing point, but otherwise survived! Last year we did very well here, partly because the water was colder than many people are used to. This year, it was 3 weeks earlier, meaning the water was still plenty warm enough to play in wetsuit-free.

We stocked up at the supermarket and made careful plans for our food over the weekend. Andy had impressed on us how we should treat the events like a two day stage race and be careful what we did both during and after the sprint. Obviously this meant stocking up on as many kinds of foreign chocolate flavours as we could justify eating …

Saturday start was fairly relaxed – register, briefing, back to house to change and kill time, start at 11. The sun was shining, the gun went off and everyone really sprinted! I think we were leading the ‘sensible’ bunch but still went 4:32 for the first km. Approaching the first swim, our main rivals for the series prize were just in front. We’d been stronger swimmers than them when we raced in Borås earlier in the year, so I was confident of catching them. However, we got in and my goggles immediately leaked – something that hasn’t happened to me in a swimrun race before! I stopped and faffed but never solved the problem, swimming 900m worrying my contact lens might wash out or get infected, and squinting lopsidedly as I sighted.

We never did catch Maria and Josefine either – turns out they’ve been getting highly effective swim coaching all summer! We were still close though as we ran through the trees. At one point we overtook but they sped up again and we tucked in behind. We had the points advantage so only needed to stay near them, not go crazy. Just then Izzy tripped and fell! It looked innocuous as the ground was soft. She said she hit her head, but she seemed OK and we carried on slightly slower.

As the race progressed, we kept the girls in sight but the pace was pretty rapid. On the final run we could still see them and were gaining slightly, but I was happy to stay like this. I ate at the feed stations even when I didn’t feel I needed it … it was important to stay fuelled and feed the muscles mid race today, ready to perform tomorrow.

Sprint run – Josefine and Maria with us in hot pursuit just behind

I smashed across the final swim, thinking we might catch them up with a straighter line. Not quite, but we ran in to the finish just 24 seconds behind, in 3rd place. The girls who won were waaay ahead and also racing on Sunday. We finished, jogged back, had our milky drinks and a fried egg sandwich, went back for prize giving then home again for another egg sandwich, feet up, then pasta for dinner!

Izzy’s head was fine, but her hand was swollen from the fall, so we bought the cheapest frozen veg we could find in the supermarket and regularly iced it all evening. I even looked up compression bandaging on YouTube and used my compulsory bandage to do a pretty good job of swaddling it up. By morning it looked much the same, but we reasoned if she’d managed to finish today she could do it tomorrow…

Sprint podium

An earlier start on Sunday as we boarded the bus in the dark. We set off a little later than expected and hit roadworks and a diversion on the way! We were calm as all we needed to do on arrival was get straight into the toilet queue and put our damp wetsuits back on. We chatted to Ulrika and Helena, the previous day’s winners, as we waited and then made our way to the start. Josefine and Maria came to give us a hug and say good luck. They said they were tired but we didn’t know if it was just bluffing 😀

Start of long race

The gun came as a surprise and we were off. No wrong turnings on the way to the first lake this time, and it was more like a triathlon swim, with a lot of pushing and shoving on the way. Two teams squeezed me from either side and I was left spluttering for air. As we got out to the feed station, we met Michael telling us to keep it steady and that the others were just in front (I think – though it was hard to catch whilst concentrating on everything else!). I wasn’t wasting energy here and tried to ignore everything else and make it our own race. We soon drew close to them, but every time we tried to pass, they accelerated a little and I decided to wait and make our move on the longest run, of 7km. However, as it happened we went past just before the preceding swim.

View down the first long swim

I thought this might be the crux, where we pulled ahead of a big bunch of teams. I swam down a short river section confidently, having just passed a few female pairs and seeing one we could catch ahead. Out into the main lake and suddenly a pair in orange bibs were coming past! What? I am not great at drafting but I jumped on their feet and worked hard to stay there. Eventually they pulled away, just as another pair came past and I went with them instead. This was like ‘sprinting’ a swim at the start of a triathlon, ignoring what had come before and was to come after! I was finding it mentally quite challenging to be racing so closely with so many other teams.

Long line of swimmers on the first run out of Wesenberg

We left the feed station first and were running through the woods at a fair pace. We could hear the voices of the other girls ringing out behind us for a long time. About 2km to go and I could feel the tow cord getting tighter. I was feeling tired too and hoping we had not pushed too hard too soon… A short swim and another 4km run which I found tough. I still had energy to admire and point out some of the enormous fungi growing in the woods around us though. The increase in support around the course was also noticeable and fantastic – I think the locals now had a better idea of what was going on!

At last we got to a long 1.2km swim and some clear water. We seemed to have pulled away from the other teams although the threat of them reappearing kept spurring me on. In fact it was as if we had finally ‘found our place’ in the race and had some space from everyone. The swim went on and on and on … But when we got out we were on a section we had done the previous day. I was hoping we might be in 4th as given who would likely podium, it would mean direct qualification to the world champs next year. It felt like we had overtaken so many teams, but I had no idea where we were now.

We still caught a couple of male teams and finally were on the last run. This felt much harder than yesterday! My hamstring had been playing up a bit since September and now I could feel it affecting my gait. I said nothing and pushed on. The final swim across to the castle, we were catching two male pairs but didn’t quite make it! Sprint finish and we discovered one of them were our friends Ben and Jonathan.

Only enough for 5th place / 37th overall, although we had moved up from 11th in the early stages. Full results here. It was enough to win the series, despite strong competition from Josefine and Maria, plus Helena and Ulrika storming up behind with two speedy wins in two days. Our pace was faster on both swims and runs compared to last year, which I like to think is fitness but may have just been the extra degrees of warmth!

No qualification to the world champs this time. The girls get one fewer place per race than the other teams, which is something I disagree with. The strength in depth of the girls’ field has grown massively over the last couple of years, which is great. You can go all the way down to 9th here and see a team that finished 77th overall in September. However, there was a big build up for the series prize and we walked away with €2500, biggest prize ever!

Thanks to race directors Mats and Michael and all the other organisers and volunteers, to the photographers Jakob Edholm and Pierre Mangez and to sportextremeswimrun.com for their support this year. Also to Graham at Physis who got my shoulder back in good enough shape after Ötillö for it to be pain free this weekend.

We thought we didn’t know many people going to this race – but turns out there were many familiar and friendly faces. It was great to catch up and get to know people better 🙂 Time for takeaway pizza and more chocolate before the journey home on Monday. Due to the persistent swelling and evident pain, I insisted Izzy went straight to the minor injuries clinic to get her hand checked when we got back – turns out she had a broken finger! No swimming for her for a while!

That’s the end of the swimrun season. I’m taking October off racing, before launching into a packed Nov / Dec with off road duathlons, an Open 5 and my first ever swim-free ultra.

This ardent supporter was there last year too, but her sign had got a full colour upgrade!

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

Big Brutal Swim – 5km

We wanted to visit my dad at least once this summer. My calendar is always full of ‘potential’ races, most of which I don’t end up doing. However, ‘mysteriously’ we ended up in Wales at my dad’s just when there was a swimming race on at the local lake!

Looks perfect for a swim

I’ve done an event run by this company before and had been impressed. This time they had three different length swims on offer, with separate classes for wetsuit / non wetsuit. I was keen to do the 10km, maybe without the suit. But eventually I was talked down by both my boyfriend and my coach into doing the 5km with a wetsuit! (I’ll just save that notion for another time 😉 ). Andy decided he would join me in the same race.

The calm, calm conditions

We woke up to a pleasant morning and walked down through the woods to the start. Midges had appeared from somewhere and time flew by so fast that I ended up getting changed whilst standing in the toilet queue ..

We scuttled to the lakeside just in time for a briefing that didn’t seem to be happening and jumped in for a warm up. The water was pleasant and exceptionally calm. Just before 9 we got out and waited a bit whilst there was a glitch with the timing system. At this point we got a very brief briefing, then we were all allowed back in the water. It wasn’t exactly clear where the start line was, so I shuffled up to the first buoy and chatted to a young girl doing the 10km with no wetsuit. She was lovely and I hope she did well!

Spotted checking out the course!

We wondered if the start was really here as there were a lot of people huddled around at the shore still. Suddenly someone shouted ‘attention racers!’ ‘go!!!’. We were off. I quickly got into a rhythm. Round the first lap and still with plenty of people. One of the legs was straight into the sun so the buoy was impossible to see until we were almost there, but I kept following other people. At the end of the second lap we headed for shore to jump out and back in again. A number of racers seemed confused at the last buoy, turning left to go round again instead of into shore. The kayakers were directing them.

I leapt out, resisted the urge to put my goggles up and run off up a mountain, and was straight back in again, heading out across the lake. Suddenly it was a lot quieter in the water as all the people doing the 2.5km race hadn’t got back in. At the end of the third lap I was passing people but couldn’t work out if it was people slowing down or people I was lapping. I got to the last buoy and was ready to turn left – but wait?! Where were we going? The next buoy seemed to have moved! Indeed, I later found out that it had, so I wasn’t just going mad.

We all swim away

Final lap and I thought I should give it everything I’d got. It turned out that was what I was doing anyway as nothing much different happened! I was trying to keep myself conscious of my technique, doing all the things I’ve been working on this summer. I’d felt my timing chip shift just after the start and had been paranoid it was falling off, but tried to ignore it as I kicked. Despite a determination to focus, I found myself drifting off and thinking about the plotline of the gripping audio book I’d finished that evening…

Now I was definitely lapping people as I’d come up on them so fast I’d almost go straight into their feet! Out of the corner of my eye I could see another swimmer going a similar speed to me. We were on our final leg and I decided to push it for racing fun. We merged, though I couldn’t get a look at their face to see if they were a boy or girl! We were side by side, matching each other’s stroke and sprinting for the finish. Now I was concentrating 😀

Suddenly they stopped to look around whilst I kept going. I smashed it into the shore, staying horizontal as long as possible; it’s quicker and in this case made it less likely to shred your feet on the sharp stones! I sprinted under the arch, panting for breath and then recovered in time to shake hands with the man who I’d just beaten 🙂

Podium trophy, luckily writing too small to read it’s the wrong one! (Andy’s pic)

The online results said I was second and I collected a little slate trophy. Discounting a couple of people who looked like they had switched to the 2.5k, I was 8th overall. Not bad. However, later that night I saw some comments on facebook from a pair of people who had mixed their chips up at the start – one of whom was a girl who had gone 30secs faster than me but was listed under the males! Darn, I was relegated to 3rd (overall unaffected)! I was disappointed at first, but it was still great to be on the podium and in the top 10.

We found out later that some of our friends had been racing too, but we completely failed to see them! Andy got us drinks and excellent cake at the coffee van and we wandered off to meet my dad for lunch.

I book-ended the race with some parkrun tourism, finally getting to do the tough and lumpy Penrhyn course on Saturday, then a run up and down ‘my dad’s mountain’ – Elidir Fawr. 20 minutes faster than last December – swapping frost for fog and wind!

Thanks to the organisers and to Babs Boardwell for doing an amazing job of capturing people’s faces in a swimming race!

That’s my last official event before this year’s Ötillö – stand by for the big one!

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’

Ironman 70.3 Edinburgh

The news was announced at a long-forgotten time back in the winter. Ironman was coming to Scotland for the first time, and the race would be a 70.3 in Edinburgh. 70.3 denotes the total distance in miles, also known as ‘middle distance’: 1.9km swim, 90km bike and 21km run.

Pre-race pose … don’t want anyone to miss me on the course!

I was immediately tempted because I knew it would be big, I like doing ‘firsts’ and I knew one of the organisers. On the other hand, I normally go for wilder races than this! After some short deliberation, I entered. If it had been a full Ironman (twice the distance) I’d have had to think harder, but as it was I thought I could fit it in.

During the winter and spring I tried to ride my bike more. I did two ‘warm up’ races, a sprint and a standard distance. On both I was disappointed with my bike speed and with only 6 weeks to go I knew I had to make up ground! Turns out it’s harder to fit in all this extra bike riding into my already full swim / run schedule than I imagined. However, fitness was not really the issue. The biggest problem was learning to be comfortable on my time trial bike.

As race day approached, the forum was going into a frenzy with people talking about the race and asking hundreds of questions. I had a lot to do at work and felt a bit stressed by everything! Although the race was on Sunday, it all started on Friday with registering and getting all my kit together. Saturday was spent leaving bags of kit in various places and attending the compulsory briefing.

On my last ride, one of my tri bars had moved a bit when I hit a pothole. Andy wanted me to get it fixed by the mechanic, but the queue at the bike drop just wasn’t moving. I got more and more anxious until I abandoned it and racked anyway; I thought it would be fine. This meant a less meticulous preview of the transition area than I’d have liked, then off to do the practice swim. I was only doing this to try the course for real, but the buoys were in random places in a loop that was very much not 1.9km. Fun waves, but there was already talk of a shortened course.

Great view from the swim start – the finish is over there!

Race day dawned with near perfect conditions for me – strong winds to make it a bit tougher, but no rain to upset my bike handling! Izzy picked up myself, my mum and Glen at the crack of dawn and off we went. Straight into the toilet queue where we learnt that yes, we would only swim 950m. Time dragged on until I did a short warm up and went to get in the right pen. Where was the right pen? In fact, where were the pens?! I am very much unused to such large race fields. There were about 1600 starters.

I found someone else in the club who swims at a similar speed to me and we decided to push our way through. That was, until someone stopped us saying: ‘I’m not letting you through, we’re all trying to get to the same place’. We ducked under the barrier instead and found a gap to get back through further down. There was plenty of room here and people planning to go at our pace.

Running out

As it turns out, I am glad we did this. Others further back had tales of swimmers in front of them doing breaststroke, throwing up and clinging onto kayaks. As it was for me, it was a fairly smooth start straight out to the first buoy. Left turn and I was swallowing a lot of water. Slightly off track, but I corrected, turned and turned again. Now the sun was blinding me and I was still swallowing water. Rather too late, I decided to only breathe to one side (away from the waves) which was a vast improvement. I couldn’t see the final orange turn buoy so I followed feet until I got there and came ashore.

Swim exit. Neoprene socks allowed, so I wore my Gococo compression socks under my suit!

There has been a lot of discussion about the swim. Personally, I loved it and would happily have done a second lap. I gained chunks of time on my competitors and it was disappointing that I did not have the fullest opportunity to exploit my strength. However, I understand the decision made and it was right for the competitors and the conditions at the time. I do think there are some inherent issues with the sport where the swim is often seen to be survived, rather than fully integral. If I am a weak on hills or struggle when it’s hot, is it fair to put in hills, or keep a full course when it’s sunny? Yes, of course it is! But safety considerations do come into play more on the swim. I wonder if some compromise could be made with a time-out on lap one, splitting people into short- and long- course options so that most people could take part safely, but allowing the best to race the full distance.

Leaving transition – still a lot of bikes there!

Anyway, it was what it was and I wasn’t troubling myself about it during the race. I was out and into transition, stuffing in a banana, waving at my mum and carefully mounting. Andy shouted out that Louise, a clubmate, was just ahead, but she didn’t appear immediately and I knew she was a strong biker. It was fabby to ride on closed roads and not have to worry about traffic! I had plenty of space and only saw a couple of instances of blatant drafting all the way round.

Part of the route is a loop that goes out and back on the same road for a while. I was just in time to see the pros coming through before I was off up the hilly loop myself. I rode this well and was remembering to eat and drink, and kept an eye on my average speed as a way to stay concentrated. As I returned I saw how it looked further down the field – big crowds of riders out for a long day. I felt privileged to be where I was.

A note on support round the course – it was great! I think I saw three young people playing their bagpipes,  residents out clapping us as we passed, and a chap away out near Garvald with flags, hollering and whooping with me as I went by. I tried to thank them all, when I had the breath to!

After about halfway, I started overtaking people who had passed me in the early stages. It was a good feeling. We had a headwind now, but I didn’t pay it any attention, tucked down on my bars. I did catch up with Louise finally, on the approach to Cousland, and we exchanged a few words. The final part of the course wiggles through town and I might have flagged a bit here, but before long I was over Arthur’s Seat and into transition just in time to hear the first male pro finishing his race!

I had been debating whether to avail myself of the portaloos here and eventually decided I would. I ran into one, skidded in my cleats and nearly came a cropper! However, it was worth it as I left relieved and was soon out running with another banana going down nicely.

I had a positive mindset and started at a good pace. Up the hill, down the other side, turn, back up, down, into tunnel, up it and down it, disco party, up …. ohhh that hill was excruciating, along, up, down, down .. weave past other racers in the narrow bits, try and guess who was ahead or behind, who was fresh or just faster…  You get the idea.

I turned not far off my target time but now it was lap two and I was in trouble. I had supporters and people shouting my name at all sorts of unexpected places on the run course, but I could only grimace at them as I laboured past. I was nauseous, I wanted to stop and I was shivering. I have been here before and knew what it meant – dehydration. I needed a plan, and fast. I’d get to the next feed station and instead of racing through I’d walk. I’d get water, electrolytes, coke, more water. Then repeat at every station, knowing there were three on the lap. All I had to do was get to the next one, up the hill! Somehow I made it, did what I planned and carried on. After doing this three times I was feeling so very much better …

Lap 3 and I almost felt normal again. I smiled at a few people and felt strong. This was my final circuit and I had rescued myself! Up a final drag, turn left, SPRINT!! Collapse on chair.

What a race! The run was brutal but I had got round. Finishing in 5:31, I had just tipped over 5.5h. Looking at the results, my bike leg was still off the pace of the others, but I had achieved my target speed and was faster over double the distance than I had been in my last race. My swim was great, my run was reasonable. I was 6th in my age group, which seemed to have a lot of strength in depth! 25th girl and 234th overall, keeping me in top 15%, which I was pleased about. Full details here.

I must thank my mum, Andy, Izzy and all the other people I know who cheered, supported and took photos!

I had mixed feelings about the result. I did achieve most of my goals and given my main focus is swimrun I probably did as well as I could. A little part of me would have loved to get on the age group podium, but I can’t control the competition and I did my best! I also seemed to recover well. Not too much muscle soreness and after a week I was bouncing up and down hills like my normal self. Which was lucky really, because next up (two weeks later) I had a bonus race in my calendar, and it didn’t look easy!

Post race snacks and literal ‘chilling’ !

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 😉

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