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Rockman Swimrun

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

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

Views of the mountains from our post-race hike

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

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

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

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

Contemplating the start

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

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

Views above Preikestolen

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

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

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

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

Time for a quick snap of us on Preikestolen

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

Views above Preikestolen

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

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

Typical woodland trail

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

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

Running high above the fjord

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

Swimming in the fjord next to steep sided hills

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

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

The easy bit

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

Rocky slabs

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

View across the fjord – we came down that hill somewhere

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

Rockman

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

Typical swimming in the fjord

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

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

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

The steps!! Just a few of them …

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

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

Ruth at the ready!

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

Racers completing the final swim leg

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

The race is front page local news!

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

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

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

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

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

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 😉

Swimrun Costa Brava

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

Sunrise the morning of the race

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

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

The rock archway we swam through on Friday

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

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

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

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

The start!!

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

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

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

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

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

Manon (Francois’ partner) on the climbing section!

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

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

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

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

Let us attack this hill!

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

Some of the colourful flowers we ran past

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

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

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

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

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

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

Podium – I’ve still got my hat on!!

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

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

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

Tranent Sprint Triathlon

My first triathlon since July 2015! I got sucked into entering the Ironman 70.3 in Edinburgh this year. I’ve never done an Ironman event before, but I couldn’t resist because it will be a massive middle distance race right on my doorstep. But that means remembering how to do triathlon, working out how to ride my TT bike, actually, even just doing some biking might help …

As part of the preparations I entered the Tranent sprint tri this month, and an open water standard distance tri in May. Apart from that, things will have to fit round my swimrun training, which is still a priority!

Photo of heat details. Veteran!!!

I am not a big fan of pool-based triathlons. For one, you have to swim in a pool! I get stressed by the thought of people mis-counting the lengths, or getting caught behind other people, or having to wait to let other people past. Because you have to go off in waves (just to fit everyone in), it also means you’re not head to head racing and, in this case, I had to wait over 3h from briefing / final transition set up until I started! But it was still the only option at this time of year.

Actually, the time passed quickly, checking out the start of the run route, clarifying the transition procedure, watching Glen swim and start his bike ride, meeting Andy who cycled up (and took the photos – thanks!), and generally faffing about.

Glen – finished before I even started, despite a broken spoke

I was in the last heat, by a whisker. My estimated swim time was 11:50 (for 750m) and I was theoretically the slowest person in the fastest heat. The lane set off in reverse order, with me 5th in line. The person who went first was pulling ahead and I was beginning to wonder if I would get lapped. Then I noticed the gap was holding, then reducing. OK, so maybe not. Before long I had in fact closed the gap to starter number 4.

In the briefing and again at the poolside, the instructions were clear. No overtaking in the lane, if someone taps your feet, you must let them past. I tapped the man’s foot a few times down the first length I caught him. He turned and didn’t let me pass. Maybe I had been too polite and he thought I was just drafting. Next length, I was a little more insistent, especially as I neared the end of the length. He still didn’t let me past. I was getting ‘somewhat’ annoyed by this point, but did not want to break the rules by just barging past mid length. So the next length I practically swam on top of him and whacked him on the back of the knee. This was clearly not drafting. FINALLY he let me through. Thank you*.

I caught everyone else in the lane in quick succession and they all let me past with no issues. Final time (by my watch, which I stopped at the end of the lane rather than the timing mat) was 11:33. Incidentally, I was 10th fastest swimmer, so I was in the right heat after all.

Need to work on mounting. Actually, how do I ride this thing?

It was a little chilly outside, so I had worn my swimrun vest with short arms under my trisuit for extra heat. This meant no faffing in transition, just on with helmet and shoes (new ones, testing without socks) and head for the mount line. I had a right wobble getting on, because I still haven’t learnt how to find my pedal with the shoe (and I am not up to flying mounts).

Now, the TT bike has carbon rims on the wheels, and the brakes do not seem that effective in general (at least not compared to the discs on my commuter and mountain bikes!!). It had also been drizzling with rain all morning, which had not been in the forecast. I had never ridden this bike in the wet before … Andy gave me warning that the braking might be unpredictable and to test it out before the first big hill. Yikes.

There was a traffic light as soon as we left the estate. Although the two sets later on the course had provisions made for them (agreed pavement mount and a timeout), this one did not and I and a group of others were caught for 15-20 seconds. Then we were off again, but I was not on full gas. I was riding within myself and making sure I stayed on the bars as much as possible. I got down the big descent then stayed upright on the pavement mount section (this had become covered in a thin film of mud and the marshals were shouting ‘slippery, slippery’ … ). Someone overtook just here but we were going the same speed up the hill and I didn’t want to draft. I practised taking a drink instead.

Oops!

Another downhill, we were over halfway and turn left onto a bigger road. I knew the course and it was straightforward from here. Andy had said to go for it from this point, which I did. I passed the person in front as if they were hardly moving and was enjoying the speed! On reflection, I probably only really started racing from here. My average speed was well down on what it was a few years ago, so it was a bit frustrating. Once upon a time the bike leg was my killer leg and I was always at the sharp end. Not so now, but I must remember I have had other priorities, am not used to the bike and anyway, this race was so short we had hardly started before it was finished! 😉

Back onto the estate and someone in front fell off their bike dismounting! Ouch. I was more cautious and somehow managed to stop at the line. Click-clack into transition and Andy said I was slow … oh? (results suggest he was right, but I am not sure why!) On with my new tri shoes, OK they have been worn for a couple of parkruns, but this time I shoved my feet in no socks. Picked up a gel and set off, trying to get it open, eat it and put the wrapper in my back pocket, which I couldn’t find. Darn, but I knew the suit had one! Eventually I found it and started concentrating on the run.

How do I get this thing open?

It was two laps on pavements round the estate. For once I was actually looking forward to this and was not daunted – run training must be having an effect. The drizzle had started washing off the arrows on the ground but I had a good idea where to go. My shins were screaming, I didn’t know why and I ignored them. Someone fast came past and I wondered how they weren’t in front on the bike – until I realised they were lapping me. Oh, the shame!! I could see club mate Peter up in front and was aiming for him, but after lap one he started pulling away slightly.

Onto lap two and as I rounded one of the final corners to face a draggy uphill, the marshal was packing up and leaving!! Was I that slow? But I knew I was almost last out on the course. Even worse, he was jogging up the hill in jeans with a backpack and I wasn’t catching him up. Stop!!! Eventually he did and clapped me past. Final effort and I threw myself over the finish line. 5.16km in 21:52. Compared to current parkrun times and given the undulations, that was OK.

Um, that is me actually smiling and waving at Andy

A rapid change was in order as prize giving was imminent. I just made it in time. I knew I had passed the other couple of girls from my swim heat, but the contenders were likely to be from the heat before. They did age category classes first and I was laughing when they said “1st Veteran, Rosemary Byde!” … this is my first year racing in the vet class as I will by 40 before the year is out. Overall podiums came next, and I was 2nd female (18th overall), a minute behind the winner. I needed a faster bike leg to do any better! But it had been a good race, well organised and the process will help me for the next two triathlons.

Winners and podiums

Thanks to Edinburgh University Tri Club for putting this on and for all the marshals and sponsors (I need to go spend my Run4It vouchers now 🙂 )

Summary of leg performance – based on timing mats (so slightly different to what I recorded). Full results here.

  Swim T1 Bike T2 Run Overall
  11:51 1:01 37:08 1:04 21:46 1:12:49
Females 4th 3rd 4th 16th 2nd 2nd
Overall 10th 15th 27th 51st 24th 18th

* The guy beat me in this race, but I see he has entered the 70.3. I will be after him!!

 

Ötillö Swimrun World Series: 1000 Lakes

We were enticed by the sound of a final swimrun race in October. Our German friends were encouraging us to sign up to the 1000 Lakes – a new Ötillö world series race. It had lots of swimming and not too much running. It was long enough since the world championships to have recovered, and short enough not to take us out for another month afterwards.

So we carried on training, mixing in a few freshwater sessions along with trips to the beach. The water was getting colder by the week, 9 – 11 oC. We had been promised warmer for the race.

We flew to Berlin and drove to the town of Rheinsberg in the area called 1000 Lakes. We took good notice of the signs telling us not to drive into the trees lining the sides of the road. When we arrived we found that no-one spoke English and even my very rusty German was needed. I did find a lovely Italian lady in the pizzeria though, and had a chat telling her all about the race and what we were doing!

Was this a foretelling of what would come? We will sing like mermaids as we emerge from the lakes ...

Was this a foretelling of what would come? We will sing like mermaids as we emerge from the lakes …

We thought Rheinsberg was quiet, but the day before the race we also went to look at the start in Wesenberg and found out what a sleepy town really is – Saturday morning, nothing open and not a soul in sight.

Izzy had a new swimrun suit, the Head Aero, designed for greater comfort and speed when running. She had worn it a few times but had not yet cut the arms and legs. I was entrusted with this nerve-wracking task, then we went off to try out some of the final run, the last swim and the run up to the square. We were gaped at like curiosities!

I was feeling fairly relaxed. We had done the big race of the year. This was for fun, with the opportunity to qualify early for Ötillö next year. But if we didn’t make it there were still other options, so we didn’t pile on the pressure. We thought the long swims would suit us, but I wasn’t so sure about the fast running. I irritated some knee cartilage during Ötillö which enforced some weeks of rest / very easy running. It might have been good for me though, as I was feeling lively and full of energy!

The people of Wesenberg seeing us off in style

The people of Wesenberg seeing us off in style

We had now been warned that the water temperatures were lower than normal, in fact, rather like home. Our test swim confirmed this. OK, we were ready for it. I had also taken careful note of the race schedule and knew there were a couple of sections with long swims and only very short runs in between. It was unlikely we’d warm up on these, so we mentally prepared ourselves to be cold and knew how long it would last and when we’d be able to warm back up.

Race day and it was an early start on coaches in the dark. Wesenberg had woken up and there were many locals out to support and cheer us on. I loved the effort made with traditional dress and the man playing a music box. It took away some nerves! It was funny to meet a couple from Cornwall enthusiastically saying they hoped not to see us on course, as they were the ‘sweepers’ following at the back on their bikes and clearing up trail markers.

The start line. The tops of our heads are visible, but Sebastian and Frank are doing a good job of obscuring us ...

The start line. The tops of our heads are visible in front of yellow paddles man, but Sebastian and Frank are doing a good job of obscuring us …

As we set off through the narrow, cobbled streets, someone gave Izzy a nudge off the main path. ‘How rude’, she thought. She didn’t react as she was focused on the task in hand, but then it happened again! As she turned to speak her mind, she saw it was our friend François being cheeky – he had a lucky escape!

It was a fast start, as we knew it would be. We were ready to get in line for a narrow section. ‘Firm, but strong’ said Izzy, and we did not panic or stress. The pair in front let a gap open and people started overtaking. Eventually we went round too. But other teams still pushed past us, very energetically. We knew to save it, there was still plenty of racing to do.

Early morning mist rising from the water

Early morning mist rising from the water

In the woods, we got to a turn and were heading straight on. Everyone else was streaming left. In hindsight we could tell it was not right. We were familiar with the course marking style and the arrow position was wrong and there was a piece of oddly placed tape.  We also knew this was not the way we had run yesterday – but maybe there had been a last minute course change? We followed.

But markings soon ran out and we saw Maja, a very good racer, running back the other way. We quickly and decisively corrected and lost less than 2.5 mins. Many others waited longer, not being able to decide who to go with, or running on and hoping to re-join the course later.

The first swim was like being in a triathlon. We were still bunched together and faster people who had gone the wrong way were catching up slower teams who had gone the right way. We saw a women’s team in orange speed past.

Serene waters and golden trees

Serene waters and golden trees

Izzy said the second run felt like a cross country, and she was right. I had decided it was short enough not to unzip my suit, but this meant it was hard to breathe easily and we were moving fast. It felt like other teams were swarming all around us and I had no idea how far back we were placed. I found it stressful!

Very soon it was time for the second swim. It was a long one (1.3km) and I was beginning to feel the cold as we neared the end. I saw a women’s team divert to the side to get out early. From the exit we had to run straight up a flight of steps. I could feel the tow rope go tight and Izzy said her calves were cramping but to just carry on. So we did! We saw one of the race directors, Michael, looking distracted on the phone. We smiled and pushed onwards.

The second swim

The second swim

Our German friends ran past and one of them had no shoes! He said later it was a deliberate strategy to keep them off on the short runs so he could kick when swimming and save time changing. We wondered what havoc it would play with his socks! The  support all along the course so far was fantastic, with many spectators to cheer us on.

I felt a bit disorientated. My face had gone numb. But Izzy was unusually talkative (for a race) and ran alongside me, keeping me going and making me feel better. Getting in to swims she was always pushing me to hurry, and on exits was ready to go when I was.

Us getting into a swim!

Us getting into a swim!

For one of the swims, we approached on a slippery boardwalk. We had been warned! We took it easy as a guy played skids in front of us. Then we were into a river, murky, with a lot of vegetation. As we neared the exit, my face was in the water and it was dark and silent, then I would look up to sight and there was noise and light, then down back into the darkness …

I had revived, and we were pushing on. I had memorised the course and knew it was another short run before a long swim and then a chance to properly warm up on the longest run section of the race. As we got to a junction we were met by an organiser. The next long swim was cancelled! At the time we felt a bit disappointed, but we just dealt with it and kept moving. Later we heard it was because so many teams had dropped out due to the cold after the second swim.

Awesome supporters!

Awesome supporters!

We were unsure of what the total length of our run would now be. At first we were told 11km – but was this total or only from when they saw us? Then we got to a feed station and a chap said ‘4km to go!’ Which was confusing, but it turned out he meant until the next feed station. And then there was still another 4km to the swim! Of course, we were nice and toasty by now, I even had sweat running out from under my swim hat.

Atmospheric swims

Atmospheric swims

The further we went the harder and harder it felt. But my watch was beeping every km and I knew from this that our pace was consistent. We even overtook a couple of men’s teams. Someone had said we were second, but we knew there at least 4 fast teams had started and I’d felt so surrounded earlier on, I wasn’t sure whether to believe them. It didn’t change what we were doing anyway. We kept running on and I suddenly took a few seconds to look up and notice how beautiful the woods around us were.

Swimmers from above

Swimmers from above

At one swim entry, a female team suddenly appeared from the other direction. This was strange and threw us into more confusion, especially when they sped off so fast on the swim! It turns out they were the lead team, who had missed a turn and just come back. We also saw François again here, and said hello – though he later accused us of not stopping for a chat. This was a race though?! No wonder we beat him … 😀

A good thing about this event was that there were so many feed stations and they seemed to come up very fast. I was variously taking energy drink, coke, bananas and chocolate biscuit bars. I lugged some water and food around all day for emergencies but wished I hadn’t bothered with so much!

Lakeside huts

Lakeside huts

With three swims to go, my shoulder started hurting. It was a long swim, right across a lake which smelled a bit of boat fuel and was busier than some of the others. I experimented and managed to find a way to alter my stroke and keep going. Maybe it was a good job that earlier swim was cancelled after all.

Later we looked at our speed, and we had slowed down a lot. I don’t think it was just my shoulder, or the fact we almost swam into two guys who suddenly stopped in front of us mid-swim! Maybe we had some fatigue from the cold or our arms were tired from the paddles, which we had hardly used since September.

Obelisk with golden helmets and shields!

Obelisk with golden helmets and shields!

On the runs we were both having calf problems now. They were cramping up when we got out, making us walk / run all bandy-legged. It wasn’t easing off either and they were staying sore as we ran. The surface was packed sand, tarmac and cobbles which were tough on the legs.

The second last swim felt warmer and cleaner and I took a drink. The sun might have come out, because I couldn’t see where I was going. Despite how it felt, my watch says all swims were either 10 or 11 oC.

Final swim towards the castle

Final swim towards the castle

Before we knew it we were on the final section we had already checked. We went past an obelisk with golden shields and down to the lakeside. I was trying to be speedy in transition, got my goggles on early, and nearly tripped over …. but as the supporters’ arms went out to catch me, I just about managed to stay upright. Success!

We swam straight across the lake towards the castle and up a little ramp to exit. We felt like celebrities. There were cheering crowds lining the route and some friends ran alongside, urging us on. We got into the finishing funnel to more cheers and congratulations, the news that we were second placed females and a quick interview.

As vegetarians we weren’t looking for the bratwurst, but our apartment was perfectly situated 100m up the street. We stumbled in, got the hot shower going and tucked into milkshake, tea, crisps and chocolate. My lips were still blue for a while though 😮 .

We were really pleased with how the race had gone. It had been hard work at times but we always knew we would finish. Transitions had a new urgency and we were positive throughout. My knee held up just fine and even after accounting for changes to the swim sections we were 35 mins faster than planned (all gained on the runs).

150 teams started, 101 teams finished. Many had to pull out early due to the cold conditions. I was just glad we had taken our recent cake eating training so seriously …

Otillo 2017 qualifiers

Otillo 2017 qualifiers

At prize giving, Michael commented how we just keep turning up! We met loads of friendly people, so despite the descending chill in the tent, we were having fun. As well as 2nd place females / 30th overall, we also qualified for Ötillö World Championships! So no need to chase it all summer next year. We were asked if it was the toughest race we’d ever done. Ha ha! No. But it goes to show how different people find different things tough. It all depends on circumstances and mental battles as much as the physical conditions.

Podium

Podium

Full results here and a short video here (we flash past at least 3 times!).

I highly recommend this race as a season finisher – it’s fast, not too long, the swims are not technical and the trees are a riot of colour. It’s also cheap. Despite the unfavourable £ / € exchange rate, the total cost was still 40% less than other races we did this year. Check it out!

Ötillö Swimrun World Championships 2016

After what felt like a long summer of racing it was finally time to do Ötillö again. We were coming back and had something to prove to ourselves.

We had made preparations and plans. Although probably no fitter than last year, we had made several trips out to East Lothian to swimrun along the coast. As well as the obvious sea / wave swimming, this included plenty of rocky sections. Arriving on Thursday in Stockholm, we spent some time relaxing, swimming in the beautiful lakes, taking a sauna, eating veggie buffets and relaxing. I was slightly jealous of people who live here!

I also spent some time reading (most unusual for me). My pilates teacher had recommended ‘How Bad Do you Want It?’ – covering the science of mental fitness, illustrated by gripping tales from endurance sport. The general gist is that you always reach your mental limit before your physical limit, and that it is your coping mechanisms that help reduce your perception of effort and get the most from your physical ability. I had to stop reading before the race as it was hyping me up too much to sleep properly 🙂

Approaching Sandhamn

Approaching Sandhamn

The boat ride over to Sandhamn on Sunday was far more relaxed than last time. We sat outside in the sun and chatted to a few people we knew from other races. We were not afraid, and we knew what was coming.

We had a plan:

  1. Conquer the rocks. To this end, we were wearing new, grippier shoes (from Icebug). These had given us great confidence in our training. We had practiced on as similar terrain as we could find despite having barnacles and seaweed instead of slippery slime. We had also decided it was easier to run these most technical sections without the tow, devising a way for me to stow it securely. Finally, we approached it with a positive attitude, bracing ourselves for the worst but knowing we could do it.
  2. Concentrate. Looking at our timings last year, there were two sections where we went much slower than we had planned. They were both a succession of shorter swims and runs, one coming after the hardest swim, and the other after the last cut off. We thought the key here was to stay focussed and keep pushing.
  3. Have target timings. Knowing how fast we went last year over different terrain, using our experience from training and other races and setting ourselves some challenges, I came up with a realistic (but not too easy!) time plan. Key points were written on my paddles so that we knew whether we were ahead or behind target.

We also had goals!

  1. Follow the plan
  2. Go faster than last year
  3. Arrive at the finish early enough to get a women’s t-shirt
  4. Be able to properly pronounce the names of some of the islands we ran over (for me)
  5. Stay positive (for Izzy)

I find early morning starts fairly traumatic, but got through this one and before long the dawn light was on us and we were out on the first swim. We seemed to be way off to the left of the group of competitors, but I thought we were going straight to the strobe light. Our gps track said otherwise, as it seemed we did an elegant curve, adding an extra 100m to the straight line distance.

Dawn swim

Dawn swim

Then we were onto the rocks. The weather had been drier than last year, which probably helped, but we also felt almost ‘at home’. The shoes and the training were paying off. We even overtook one team and certainly didn’t experience the stream of over-takers that we had last time. A few male teams were quite aggressive, pushing past, or bounding in and out of the undergrowth to get round. We had our fun, identifying pairs we thought would crash and burn, paying for their over-exertion later. Unfortunately, there was not enough room in my head to memorise their race numbers and check whether we passed them later on!

We got to the first time cut off 29 mins quicker than before and well ahead of plan. We began thinking what had been our problem last year?! We’d told a few of our friends and other teams how awful this section was – and we thought they would now be wondering what we had been going on about.

Us emerging from the woods

Us emerging from the woods

There is a swim in the next section where we follow the bank as we cannot cross someone’s land. It is murky and smells funny and we slipped in slimy grey mud on our way out. We postulated that the owner puts their compost in there all year, just to discourage us! We saw someone running back along the route, looking for a lost yellow paddle, but we had not seen it.

One of the swims was really rough. I could see the boat carrying spectators, the Silverpilen, when I turned to breathe. Izzy was trying to find the best position to swim, behind or next to me. I knew she was moving about but was not concerned and just kept swimming on. She was on the tow, so I knew I couldn’t lose her. Later she told me her goggles had even come off and she had stopped to put them back on! We had a chuckle imagining what the spectators must have made of all the shenanigans. I had one fall before a timing section. I was sore, but only bruised. Izzy fell several times and days later was covered in blue patches and had a black eye! Maybe it was from a shoe-in-face incident on this swim…

Helicopter! It was sitting on the beach acting as a great sighting object for one of the swims...

Helicopter! It was sitting on the beach acting as a great sighting object for one of the swims…

We trundled on until we got to the second cut off, which has a short out and back to a feed station. I remembered getting cheese sandwiches with dimpled Swedish bread here and wasn’t disappointed. We felt like we were ‘in the race’ this time, seeing lots of teams in both directions. It was so different. We’d also wondered how the other British/Irish women’s teams were getting on, and found out when we saw them both just behind us as we left. We had enough energy to be pleased they were doing OK, but weren’t concerned about positions for this race, only our time and ‘the process’. We stayed focussed on own race.

It felt like we had just started, had maybe done 1 or 2 hours, but I looked at the time and realised we’d done nearly 5h. Oh, I wished I had not done that, because it made me feel tired. However, we were now moving according to our planned pace, and still ahead from our strong start. We had gained another 13 minutes on last year’s time. I guess we were just fresher from having wasted less mental energy.

Entering a swim (yes, it is us in orange!)

Entering a swim (yes, it is us in orange!)

The next section was starting to feel tough, but I tried to buoy the mood with news of the pig swim coming up! Although this is notorious for being the hardest swim of the race, we found it very exciting last year. This year was a bit calmer, but still a challenge. Because of the currents, I did not aim for the landing point, but rather a big piece of land to the right. The new watch gets a bit upset trying to hold onto gps signal when it is choppy and rough, adding lots of little squiggles compared to the smooth straight lines of other swims! But our general direction was straight over, no bending here.

Safely across, Twix in hand, and we had done this section on plan and about the same speed as last year. It was time to focus. We had to keep moving well. Now I could see how we had slowed here last year. It was technical again and we had to find new energy to maintain momentum. We had come off the tow, to reduce stress. I would get ahead a bit and find the route. Over the race I had developed my version of a ‘gripometer’. I’d shout out one of ‘very grippy, quite grippy, grippy enough, slippery’ as I tested each section of rock!

Beautiful islands

Beautiful islands

Izzy didn’t seem best pleased about the terrain, but I asked “what do your paddles say?!” Oh … the motivational sayings she had written on them the day before had washed off. So we had to make them up … I shouted back: “Are you still moving? Are you still smooth? Are you still positive?!” “Yes!!” came the reply! Her attitude was top notch.

We approached the famous garden, where a lady and her family always come out to support. On the way in, we wondered what the skull and cross bones flag hanging above us signified?! But they had the nations flags strung along the fence, they were cheering, tooting, banging a drum and shouting out our names as we came through. A fantastic boost at this point in the race.

Loud and enthusiastic supporters

Loud and enthusiastic supporters

We were passing the time and wondering what the wildlife is on these islands, and why we hadn’t seen much. We spotted several anthills, some harmless purple jellyfish and tiny shoals of fish. Then only some quiet sheep in a field. Izzy had been reading a book before the race too. Hers was called ‘Run or Die’, by Kilian Jornet, a renowned ultrarunner. I joked that we had to keep running else when we sat down, we would die when the crazy sheep came to eat us!

We started going back and forth with team 118 (another pair of girls). We were better swimmers than them, they were better runners than us, especially when it got technical. So we kept on overtaking each other and saying hello as we alternated swims and runs. We only once lost the track where it turned along the shore after the swim, and a mixed team helped us find it. Other times, we were less hesitant than last year and just kept moving forwards.

Soon enough, we got to Ornö. We had gone another 14 minutes faster than last year. The plan was still working.

View across one of the swims

View across one of the swims

Now we had to do the long run. It was hot and I started feeling weary. I decided I had not eaten enough. Darn! This is something I keep forgetting, I need to learn this. It seems a hassle to eat along the way, but the feed stations alone are not enough. I took a gel, a soft flapjack and some Honey Stingers. We only exchanged a few words for a long time. Izzy told me she didn’t want a running commentary, and I got told off when I mentioned how far we’d managed to do! I was playing alphabet A-Z for fruit and veg, then animals. Izzy was singing her way through the Madonna back catalogue. Both of us doing it in our heads.

We’d passed the church, the official aid station, the unofficial aid station, and the cold hose shower. Suddenly I realised I had become totally spaced out. I was reading my paddles but could have been anywhere. I snapped to and made myself eat more, asking Izzy for help to get at it. We did this section a bit slower than last year (4 minutes).

A swim.

A swim.

I couldn’t wait to get in the cool water, and then suddenly I had energy again for the last sections. I must remember to eat more!! This was the second part where we had to pay attention. Last year we were so relieved and tired at the cut off that we slowed down and stumbled our way through the last part. This year we would stay focused.

Team 118 had only caught us at the end of the run, but we had already walked and got our wetsuits zipped back up, so we could set straight off. We did not see them again until the finish.

On some tricky rocks, Izzy had almost her only grump (about the unsuitability of a tow for the trail we were on). This is good going for anyone in such a long race, so I was happy! We laughed about it later 😀 I had a faint recollection that the track got easier again, and I promised we could unclip if it didn’t. But thankfully it did.

Not us, but typical island terrain.

Not us, but typical island terrain.

On the long run we had lost a bit of our earlier advantage compared to the plan, but were now going faster than last year again (another 16 minutes gained). I knew we were still under our target pace for 12h, and we would make it.

We landed for the last run. Izzy asked me “So, what’s this one, 7km?” This might have been the best bit of the race, as I was able to say, “No! Less than 3.5km!!”. We set off at pace (OK, 6 minute kms), readying ourselves for the final hill. It seemed quiet coming into the last few hundred metres (we were spoilt by spectators at Isles of Scilly!), and then there we were at the arch. We danced and whooped as we had done 11h47. 72 minutes faster than last year and 12 minutes under our target time.

The finish - yeeaass!

The finish – yeeaass!

Our time was great, though our placing in the women’s ranking sank and we only moved up 6 spots overall. But this is because of the competition. It is getting better and better every year, and for women especially the quality is going up and deeper into the field. One hope I have is that the women’s teams can keep on getting more slots in the race now.

As for our aims:

  1. Follow the plan: √
  2. Go faster than last year: √
  3. Arrive early enough to get a women’s t-shirt: X – no T-shirts this year!
  4. Be able to properly pronounce the names of some of the islands we ran over (for me): √ (thanks Mårten!)
  5. Stay positive (for Izzy): √

After the finish, we pondered how we could go faster if we go again. This time it is less obvious. We have some ideas, but have time to think for a while. Qualifying to race at all is not easy in the first place! We enjoyed ourselves enough to sign up for 1000 Lakes in Germany though, and get a race per country for the World Series this year 🙂

Many thanks to our sponsors and supporters, especially Head / sportextremeswimrun, Icebug UK and Gococo socks. Also to my coach Scott and everyone else who has helped us and followed progress (Andy, Jim, Helen, Ellie … I can’t list you all, but you know who you are!).

My mum came to look after me for a few days after the race, and brought this handmade jellyfish with her as a well done present!

My mum came to look after me for a few days after the race, and brought this handmade jellyfish with her as a well done present!

 

Ötillö swimrun Engadin

After our adventures in the Isles of Scilly, we were off on our travels again to the Engadin valley in Switzerland for another Ötillö world series event. We entered on the basis it would give us a second chance to qualify if we hadn’t already done so (which it turns out we had). We were also told it would be beautiful and that we should do it anyway!

Prologue

Preparation for this race was less than ideal, especially for Izzy. She managed to pick up big holes in her arm and leg and a cold beforehand. By the time we set off, things were looking better though.

It didn’t take long to start worrying again! In retrospect, it may have been the effects of altitude. I had headaches for a day or two after arriving, plus sniffles. Izzy felt her cold getting worse. As a result we didn’t have any little practice runs or swims as planned – possibly a mistake. We did not know how it might feel. Instead we contented ourselves with viewing the race course from various angles: up on the mountain from the cable car, in the valley from the bus, and a short walk round some of the first run.

I had a race plan and a target time. I wasn’t sure how altitude would affect us, but thought the times were realistic, possibly slightly conservative. It would be enough to get us to about 5th place. If we had a good day we should go faster and maybe even challenge for podium.

The morning of the race. An early start, crammed onto a bus like sardines. We left on time, like all Swiss public transport that we experienced! It was hot though, and as we waited to go into the small drop off area I was feeling claustrophobic. I headed straight for the toilet queue before it could get too long. Already too late. Blokes were going in fully zipped up in their wetsuits and coming out dressed the same, even as Michael, one of the race organisers shouted increasingly urgently to make sure we got our timing chips cleared. I was checking my watch, 4 minutes per person?! Eventually I escaped as Michael had resorted to yelling “quick sh*t, quick sh*t!”.

Never follow an arrow to anywhere with the word 'forno' in its name

Never follow an arrow to anywhere with the word ‘forno’ in its name

The Start (08:00)

We had decided to run with our wetsuit up, but unzipped. It was only 6km to start with, after all. It was a much bigger race than the last one and the crowd bumped and jostled at the start. We took it slow and were soon winding up the hill in a line of competitors. Before long I could feel sweat pouring off my face. I checked my watch. We’d been going 13 minutes.

Mass crowds at the start. We're in the clappers, somewhere ...

Mass crowds at the start. We’re in the clappers, somewhere …

I was also already towing Izzy hard. Hmm, I thought, not sure I could keep this up the whole way. I tried to be sensible, stay in line and not rush to close gaps on the flatter parts – they soon closed again as we hit the ups. We started to descend and I was still towing as we struggled to pass a mixed team who were definitely flagging more than us. After an arduous time where I felt we were silently battling each other, Izzy had a minor strop and unclipped herself. I was dubious, but in fact, without having to worry about the tow as well as her footing, she flew straight off down the hill. At the bottom she was full of fight and we leapt into the beautiful cool water of the lake.

Mass start

Mass start

At the other side though, she got dizzy and fell backwards as we got out. We started the downhill run with her bumping into me. We were at a height of about 2600m.

I tried to encourage and said we’d keep the tow on a gentle tug. This was all too much and before long I was hearing the words “I just don’t think I can do this today”. “Yes you can”, I replied. Not long after, in a moment of stress as people overtook on a narrow path, I tripped and fell hard. Before I had time to think, a fellow competitor had lifted me bodily from the ground! Blood was streaming from my hand and knee. I did my best to wash the grit out with some of our water but my goggles were also full of blood and they had to wait for later. We set off again hobbling.

Izzy’s glutes then cramped up and we had to stop to stretch them out. This was followed by a forlorn “I’m sorry, I know you really wanted to do well today..” I said: “Shut up and don’t worry about that, it is now about survival and finishing this race”.

Our entire plan had to change, we had to set new goals. I have never had a DNF (‘did not finish’) and didn’t want one now. I didn’t say this at the time, but Izzy later admitted she hadn’t had one either and was thinking the same. I resisted panicking as we walked tiny rises so early in the race and carefully pondered what to say. “Izzy, you’re a Scot, right?” “Yes” “Well, you’ve paid a lot of money to enter this race, and a proud Scot would definitely make sure they got their money’s worth” … bingo! Turns out this was true 🙂 .

Izzy had felt like this race was a simple factual physical impossibility on this day. But I thought it was a mind game, and mind games you can always win. We carried on moving.

More scenery

Scenery

The Middle, Part 1 (09:40)

We had been going for less than 2h and got to the second swim behind schedule and in difficulty. The results later showed we were in 120th position out of 157 starters. The water was lovely, though Izzy said later that her arms felt dead.

In all the noise and pre-race chatter about how cold the water would be, I had been oblivious to how hot the air temperature would be (despite a mention of it race briefing). 23 degrees C! OK, not hot by continental Europe standards. But hot by Scottish standards.

Even more scenery

Even more scenery

I started to suffer a bit. I am not good in the heat, but am getting better at noticing the symptoms! I started drinking, drinking – both from my bottle and from the lakes when they were clear and fresh smelling. Despite the hassle, we agreed we had to ‘cab down’ (the term used to mean taking the wetsuit off to the waist) on every run. The wet race bib was bliss. It didn’t seem to dry very well, instead creating a constant cooling effect on our top half. Fortunately, the route dipped in and out of the woods and their delightful shade. I aimed for it at every opportunity, and doused my head from a pipe spilling out cold water on the hillside.

At one point we passed some horses. I am normally wary of them, but these ignored us. We discussed hijacking a couple to take us down the hill, with the string of switchbacks on a tight path. I promise we left them alone though …

Shall we borrow a horse?

Shall we borrow a horse?

I was keeping an eye on my watch. I had memorised the route and had it broken down into sections in my head. I knew we were losing 5-10 minutes per section against plan, which itself only gave us 40 minutes to spare at the first cut off – which was way off at 13:45. I was worried and mentioned this briefly near the start but it had only caused despair, so I kept quiet until the final short swim and long run before the cut off.

The Middle, Part 2 (12:08)

“OK Izzy, we have 97 minutes to do this section. And at current pace, it will likely take us 85-90 minutes. But the second cut off is also very tight, so any minutes to spare, we need”. I thought we could realistically do this now, we just had to keep moving in the same way.

Lovely shady path zig-zagging down the hill

Lovely shady path zig-zagging down the hill

We set off walking up a very steep hill. We knew it was coming, which made it easier. I was towing firmly, but trying to keep exertion below the level which had nearly killed us off earlier. It was as if at altitude, you could go so hard, but no harder without it tipping you over an edge. Little swarms of flies kept appearing round our heads and we batted them away with our hand paddles.

I knew we had to go up the valley alongside a river, then cross over and back down the other side for a flattish run in. Sooner than anticipated, I could see the course turning left. I promised we could walk to the river and that then I thought it was downhill and so maybe we could ‘jog-a-log’? Izzy had coined this phrase earlier and we now used it for any running part. Time to jog-a-log again?

Some shots of the scenery, which we managed to appreciate at least a little bit ...

We did manage to appreciate the views at least a little bit …

Thankfully I was right. Our mood was lifting and there was even some happy chitchat. The sound of cowbells drifted across a field and we imagined they were our rapturous supporters cheering us on.

The sight of kite surfers on the lake near the cut off were welcome. Suddenly we were on the valley floor again, running in the sun. I looked at my watch and couldn’t believe it. A shiver ran through me that normally only comes near the end of epic races. We were going to make it to the end. No doubt about that now. We got to transition with 35 minutes to spare. Not only had we made the cut off, but we had caught up on our schedule by a huge amount. What had happened?

Swimmers and kite surfers (in different lakes!)

Swimmers and kite surfers (in different lakes!)

So now we faced a section we were more than confident about. We were also at ‘only’ 1800m and I think the effect was noticeable. Michael said we had plenty of time, but we leapt straight in the water for the first of two long swims. Remarkably, we were overtaking a string of teams. I wasn’t entirely sure where to aim for, except ‘the end of the lake’. After I had passed everyone we were following, I headed for what looked like a female competitor taking ages to get out. It turned out to be a large orange buoy. Not an enormous lady.

Big orange buoy. Definitely not a girl.

Big orange buoy. Definitely not a girl.

As had been the case throughout the race, we passed a lot of teams at transition despite our occasional clumsiness managing the bibs and equipment as we cabbed up and down on the approach. We were also quick at feed stations as we stopped only to drink, refill bottles and grab bits of bananas or a gel to eat on the move.

Suddenly, it felt like we were ‘in the race’. Previously, it had felt like we were trailing at the back. Whether this was just mental, or also physical I am not sure. But the cheers seemed louder, the smiles of the marshals more confident, and there were more competitors around us. People yelled at us in various languages, some we understood and some we didn’t. Most yelled ‘bravo!’ or ‘super!’ or, even better, ‘super bravo!’ 😀

Who wouldn't want to run around here?

Who wouldn’t want to run around here?

We ran with a group of mixed pairs, then in for another long swim. They had vanished and we were now with some male pairs. A very short run, then we were at the final swim in a warm peaty lake, though I shivered getting in. Maybe my body was going into meltdown. It was short though and we were soon out the other side.

Spectator point with a view

Spectator point with a view

The End (14:45)

Just 8.3km run, 400m swim, 2.7km run to go. We were on my race plan times, even under them! We adopted ‘ultra-running’ style. Walk every hill. Run the flats and downhills. In this way we passed a few more male teams. My legs ached. My left knee hurt from the fall and my right from the downhill impacts. But I switched off my brain and kept the same pace. Just jog-a-log. I was still towing on and off, but much more moderately now, something I could sustain.

We saw Michael again at the final cut off, we had loads of time to spare. “How are you doing?” He asked. “OK!”, we grinned. “In fact, so much better than we were before!” Kids on bikes kept riding past and shouting in French. A group of girls got to us twice and surrounded us on the path cheering more enthusiastically than anyone. Every encouragement gave us a little lift.

The only picture I found of us actually racing! Yes, it us, about to overtake that team, I believe ...

The only picture I found of us actually racing! Yes, it us, about to overtake that team, I believe …

We were confused seeing swimmers in the final lake, but only because I had got muddled up about where the last swim went. We suddenly saw a female pair in front. I reassured Izzy: “Do not stress, I will stick exactly to what we’ve been doing”. She did not want to get into a battle. But we overtook on the swim and out the other side I was true to my word. We ran along the lake and walked up the smallest of inclines.

At a bend I glanced over my shoulder but we were well clear. Final push to the finish.

Now I was pulling hard again. Every muscle was screaming at me but I blanked out my mind. It was not that far. Round the corner, up a small hill, we ran this one, and into the finish arena.

You can stop running now!

You can stop running now!

The Finish (16:12)

We crossed the line and we were 4 mins ahead of original plan! Mats came to give us a hug, but Izzy sort of fell over in his arms and he took her to the shade of the tent. She lay curled up whilst I worried and gave her a pat. Relief and smiles when she sat up!

We placed 4th females, 52nd overall. Results here. That meant we made up 68 positions from our lowest point in the race. We had been to a very difficult place and come back. Not only that, we found ourselves competing again. We had worked together and kept each other going. It is good to have these experiences, if only to know you can do it and come out the other side fighting. Never give up. The free cake and tea at the hotel stops at 17:00 and is not to be missed.

More than a marathon of trail running (47.5km), more than the height of Ben Nevis in ascent (1500m), at altitude, in the heat. 6km of swimming, all beautiful, we’d have loved more!

Finished, and both managing to sit up in the shade!

Finished, and both managing to sit up in the shade!

Thanks to everyone who has helped us – including Head / sportextreme for wetsuits, Gococo for socks and Icebug for shoes. To the organisers Michael and Mats for putting on such a crazy race. To the wonderful people at Conrad’s Mountain Lodge for feeding us early on race day and greeting us like long-lost friends every morning. Also special thanks to Helen, my massage therapist at Physis, who somehow put me back together after the last race and expertly avoids various scrapes, bruises and wetsuit rashes.

Isles of Scilly Swimrun

“Reaching the Isles of Scilly couldn’t be easier” – so says the tourism website. After an evening train to London, the overnight sleeper to Penzance (enchantingly called ‘The Night Riviera’) and then a 3h trip plagued by sea sickness, we finally made it to St Mary’s, the main island, a mere 20 hours after we set off.

Luckily, we had arrived on Thursday and the race wasn’t until Saturday, so we had time to recover! It took me longer than Izzy, but by race day we both felt fine. Our B&B owner even relaxed the strict ‘breakfast at 08:30’ rule to serve us earlier and let our food settle. I appreciated the civilised race start time (10:00), but being only 2 minutes walk from the start, it did mean a lot of anxious waiting around.

Our timing chip wasn’t working and, as we waited for a new one, even one of the race directors told me to relax and not worry. I must have had ‘nervous race face’ on! Andy always tells me nerves are good for my performance though.

This was a ‘World Series’ event and the first in the UK, with qualification spots for the World Championships in September up for grabs. Izzy and I wanted to go back there and do a better job than last year – but had not been selected on merits. Qualifying was our only option; we had to be in the top two teams excluding anyone already qualified – and we thought it would be close.

Our gps trace, swim wiggles and all

Our gps trace, swim wiggles and all

I had done a lot of route studying in the days prior to the event. In my head, I had broken it down into 7 sections, memorising the run and swim lengths, target times and feed stops. This really helped me on race day as I knew exactly what was coming up, as well as our general direction of travel (the map in my head was probably as good as the one in my back pocket!). Izzy had a gps watch to give us distance checks when we needed, but I raced with a watch showing only the time of day! We were ready for our 10 runs (30km) and 9 swims (7km).

Section 1 – 2.5km run / 2km swim. Target finish: 11:00. Actual finish: 10:55

Stream of racers getting in for the first swim

Stream of racers getting in for the first swim

When we did make it into the start pen, we lined up ‘near-ish’ to the front – in fact, about level with the women’s team containing a current and a former world champion. We didn’t have the temerity to stand further forward than them! The starting gun went, though I didn’t hear it, and we were off. As the path narrowed, we got stuck behind a couple of mixed pair teams. I decided it wasn’t worth trying to push past at this stage (as per race briefing), though it didn’t stop a few others elbowing past. Over a few rocks on the beach and we were off through the seaweed on our first swim.

Find a good route through the seaweed

Find a good route through the seaweed

Izzy cracked a rib or two whilst out cycling 6 weeks before the race. This had interrupted training somewhat. Usually I would be reassured and spurred on in equal measure by the tap-tap of her paddles on my heels, but they weren’t there. On the other hand, our bungee tow cord was not taut, so I knew she had enough draft to keep up without any bother.

We had been told to aim for orange or red flags. I was concerned about this, as I’d had trouble spotting red flags at Loch Gu Loch. I aimed for the orange thing – though realised the next day that it was a windsock that had nothing to do with the race! Never mind, it worked well enough.

Section 2 – 3 runs, 3 swims, with a longish middle swim. Target finish: 12:00. Actual finish: 12:02

Walk or swim? Swim!!

Walk or swim? Swim!!

We got out for a very short run through the dunes. Dennis from Head was there and shouted to us that we were 2nd female team – woohoo! The next bit was confusing as the tide was still low and it was debatable whether we were on a swim or a run section. Others were wading, but we always swim if the water is barely deep enough. So we did, and could see we were moving the same pace as people walking around us, but I think we used less effort.

At some point on this section another female team came past us. The leaders had already got a qualifying spot, so we didn’t panic and knew we just needed to hold this new position. I recognised the team as being one that had introduced themselves earlier – we have a mutual (very fast) running friend. As we started the longer swim I could see that they were slightly mismatched for speed, with one at the front having to hold back for the other. We powered on. I wondered if their forte would be the running and half expected them to catch us on the 3km run.

Swimrun views

Swimrun views

In the end, they did not and as we cleared the big rocks on the exit of the last swim I could see them in the water and estimated we had about a 3 minute lead. It was here we passed a quite impressive castle, which we visited in a more leisurely fashion the next day. Unfortunately, I never even noticed it was there – but the proof was in the photos and the video!!

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

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

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

Racers in Tresco Abbey Gardens

Racers in Tresco Abbey Gardens

This run passed like a dream. It was great island for spectators, as we had crossed the tip of it after the first swim and were now running round it. We also went through the Tresco Abbey Gardens, packed with tourists. I couldn’t believe the level of encouragement we were getting. Everyone was clapping and cheering and I felt like a superstar! Throughout the day, whenever someone supported us, I did my best to give them a yellow hand paddle wave 😀

I’m pretty sure it was at one of these feed stations I got a rather tasty piece of cake, though Izzy’s face when I suggested she try a piece was a picture! We did a good job of moving through the stations quickly, pausing to drink and grabbing food to eat on the way out.

Cake, anyone?

Cake, anyone?

Finishing this longer run leg still ahead of the 3rd placed team gave me a morale boost. We were ready for the section that would test our transition skills.

Section 4 – in out, in out, shake it all about (short legs across a string of 3 islands). Target finish: 13:30. Actual finish: 13:33

Ötillö Isles of Scilly Swimrun

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

One of the features of the swims in this race was the killer SEAWEED. We encountered it during a little try out the day before, but little did we realise we’d have to race through it too. It was like spaghetti, coming up from the bottom in thick strands and floating on the surface in a swirling mass of slippery stalks. It was easy to find out what it was later – it is actually called ‘sea spaghetti’! It’s even edible, so we should have had a nibble to keep us going…

Instead we fought our way through. At one point, Izzy had given my bum a hefty shove when I seemed to have stalled. I hurt my elbow a little doing some funny sculling, and realised it was better to just make the hand entry much steeper and slice through it.

Follow the signs!

Follow the signs!

We have practised transition a lot, but could probably still get better. Pushing the pullbuoys round is fiddly. We got confused at one rocky section, losing sight of the tape and marshal, but soon were on our way again. I was pleased we were hitting our target times nicely! Especially since I had confidently told them to everyone who might be at home tracking us 😀

Section 5 – 7.6km run. Target finish: 14:30. Actual finish: 14:26

Where's Wally lighthouse!

Where’s Wally lighthouse!

This run was a beautiful coastal trail winding round the island of St Martin’s. It did go up and down a little, and the tow was starting to come into play. I was still feeling strong and enthusiastic though! I was careful not to look at the view too much as, when I did, I promptly tripped over. We overtook a couple of male teams and everything was going well. I did my best motivational talk for Izzy. “You are only allowed to think positive thoughts!” I declared. To which the curt reply was “I’m trying!”. I spotted a ‘Where’s Wally’ red and white stripy lighthouse thing and instructed Izzy to view the jolly sight and smile. I was full of facts such as: ‘halfway through this run!’ and: ‘less than 10km total running to go in the race!’…

Us running on beautiful trails

Us running on beautiful trails

We were also filmed by an enthusiastic chap running alongside us, which was fun – you can see a clip of it in the official video 🙂

Because my elbow had been sore, I was a bit anxious thinking about the last, very long swim.

Section 6 – 2.3km swim. Target finish: 15:15. Actual finish: 15:31

You can get quite long swims in between islands!

You can get quite long swims in between islands!

Before that, we had to pick up a pink tow float just for this swim, as it was the longest and most difficult. The safety kayakers had to be able to find us. Izzy was getting some food down, so I adjusted the belt and fastened it round her waist, giving her a quick mid race cuddle to say ‘we’re doing great!’.

As we got to the water, the marshal told us there was a strong tidal current coming right to left, and to aim to the radio mast, far to the right of where we had to land. I was happy with this concept, as we had had to do this a lot at Otillo. However, this time it was different. The channel was wider than anything we had crossed there, and the current wasn’t consistent.

Swimrun views

Swimrun views

We were also a bit confused, as we were told to aim for the mast, then were told we were too far right and to aim for the yellow buoy. Then we were told to aim for the mast again, then the beach, then the mast … I was getting too cold and tired to care much by this point, and was extremely grateful for the presence of the two chaps in the tandem kayak who escorted us most of the way across. There was an island to our right. The perspective was probably playing tricks, but it seemed we would never swim past it.

Every time I thought ‘I’m tired’ or ‘I’m cold’ or ‘Are we moving?’ there was no other answer that came to me except ‘keep swimming…’

I had wondered whether we were on for a sub 6h race, but you can see that this is where our timings unravelled a bit! It wasn’t just us though – even channel swimmer and ‘Mr SwimSmooth’ Paul Newsome said it was a tough leg, and all teams took longer than they expected. Our gps recorded the distance as 2.5km – probably due to our wiggles – some from direction changes and some from tidal pull!

Section 7 – approx. 7km run. Target finish: 16:00. Actual finish: 16:21

Finish line!

Finish line!

We were rather happy to finally land. The marshals suggested we take some time to gather ourselves, though I was not letting up. My concession was a walk up the beach. Thankfully the sun was now out and we warmed up really fast. At the final feed station, we were told others in front had been commenting on the difficulty of the swim, so we were buoyed by this fact.

Despite knowing we only had this one run to do, as we climbed another little hill, with the tow rope taut, I felt a sudden slump. I took an emergency gel with 20 minutes to go, and think it helped. Just after that we got onto a section we had recce’d and knew the end was almost here. On we pushed, until we rounded the corner onto the final stretch. It was lined with spectators who were all going wild, cheering and shouting and taking photos.

Under the finish arch, straight into an interview, a hug for the camera and we were done!

We slumped onto the ground, drank coke, ate some of the snacks we had carried all the way round (!), soaked up the sun and congratulated the others finishing.

Post-race chilling

Post-race chilling

Annika Ericsson and Maria Edstedt had a clear win, coming in 25 minutes ahead of us. Jenny Rice and Claire Wilson kept their 3rd spot finishing in 6h41 (their report here). We were 14th overall out of a field of 81 starters and were delighted both to have qualified for Ötillö and with our overall result. Full list here.

Qualified for Ötillö World Championships!

Qualified for Ötillö World Championships!

It also means that the pressure to qualify in our next race, in Switzerland, is off. Instead we can focus on other things about the event. This is great as Scilly played to our strengths (greater swim:run ratio) and I’m expecting to find the next one tougher. Plus, it’s at altitude, and I live about as close to sea level as it’s possible to get.

Sunday was reserved for sightseeing and more celebrity status. All weekend people (residents and tourists alike) had been stopping us in the street or when we were out eating, asking us about the race. Common questions were about where we were swimming to, whether it was really true we had to stay within 10m of each other, and whether we would be tied together!

Time to celebrate! Cornish cider.

Time to celebrate! Cornish cider.

After a trip to Tresco, the gardens, a fine lunch, the castle and back again we were off to hunt for the chambered cairn we had passed in the race. After an unplanned detour and an emergency café stop (where we picked up the best map we’d had all weekend) we found the cairn, plus a rock shaped like a camel. Then we were hot-footing it home to (only just) make the prize giving and pasty eating celebrations on time!

“Reaching the Isles of Scilly couldn’t be easier.” I thought getting there had been hard work, and we had paid extra to leave on Monday by plane and get home the fast way. Unfortunately, our flight was cancelled due to fog, we were put back on the boat (sea sickness pills duly purchased and taken) and it took 31 hours to finally get home. The only compensation was the opportunity to chat with more fellow racers and get to know them better. This included Mårten and Matti who we had met at Loch Gu Loch last year. Matti’s daughter has a great tale of leukaemia survival. This time they were racing in different pairs and raising funds via “Heja Stina!” – read more here.

Getting to the race in Switzerland will involve two planes and three trains … here’s hoping it goes a bit more smoothly!

Many thanks to our sponsors, sportextreme.com and Gococo socks (I wouldn’t race without them). Also to Icebug UK – I was racing in their shoes for the first time. Super light, super grippy, super easy to spot in swimming photos! Also thanks to the organisers for putting on a great race, the photographers and to everyone on the Scilly Isles who were so happy to have us there!

Here is the race video – spot us three times 🙂

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