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Vivobarefoot swimrun (Bantham)

At Loveswimrun Holy Island, Andy Parritt asked me if I’d like to come to an invitational event in Bantham, headlined by Vivobarefoot. I was unsure. My hamstring hurt, it was a long way away and I was committed to spending that weekend with Marie. So then he invited Marie too! She was enthusiastic and I was persuaded … As time went on, I saw Graham the physio and was diagnosed with a ‘proximal hamstring tendinopathy in reactive state’, which in turn caused me to react with a high state of stress!

Bantham, a village in south Devon with thatched houses and narrow approach lanes

However, the minute I met Marie at Edinburgh airport on a wild Friday night I relaxed a bit. We would have fun. How our plane landed at Bristol, I do not know. The wings tipped and tilted, we bounced and the passengers applauded as we taxied along. As we drove to the rendezvous (‘somewhere in Devon, maybe?’ we told the car hire chap) the roads went from wide, deserted and windswept to tiny with passing places and hedges and trees forming tunnels over our heads. As the rain lashed against the windscreen we wondered where was this place we were heading to?!

A wonderful welcome

We arrived and crept into the large, dark, quiet house. We had instructions on how to find our beds, where we also found an update on the race route and logistics. It suited me with a bit less running! As we lay down to sleep we could hear the wind buffeting outside. When we woke up we were greeted with a spectacular view of the estuary and the sea with gigantic waves coming in. Wow!

Estuary emptying and the important pink thatched house

As everyone else started emerging it was clear we were in for a great weekend. The vibe was relaxed and it turned out I knew plenty of people. We assembled on the lawn for the start and briefing then were off along the lane and through trees covering a carpet of prickly conker shells, then out at the end of the estuary. We were 2nd but I knew there was a fast swimming team behind us!

Sure enough, they flew past and there was no way I could hold their feet this early in the race. The closer we got to the sea, the rougher it became, delivering me with a few mouthfuls of salty water straight to the back of my throat. Ugh! As we approached an area full of boats, I was confused. Which way to go? We were following the bank, as instructed, but eventually spotted the pink thatched house we had been told to look for. As we set off again, we saw a crowd coming in from our right on a straighter line. Bother!

‘Famous’ racers on a coast path 😉 (Anders Malm, ‘the first loser’)

Swimrun makes you smile

I wasn’t letting them all overtake due to our dodgy route choice and powered ahead. As we got out, I was urging Marie on and we lost a hat, kindly redelivered to us by the team just behind! This is when we started to realise the route might be hillier than expected, as we slogged to the cliff top before looping back down. We managed to pull away again as Marie pulled me!

Across the estuary, there was a slight ‘disagreement’ as I aimed off to account for the current and Marie decided to go her own way 😀 . Then we were out and I was dragged up the endless hill on the other side before we hammered back down to the sea, wading over to an island surrounded by surfers coming out to play.

Burgh Island, to which we waded and back (from the pointy bit)

The route on the island was uncertain … but we went up to the building, looped round and down the other side. More wading and more climbing before another long estuary swim. We were getting well and truly ‘swooshed’ now, almost coming a cropper under a boat as I tried to take a better line than the first time! At great speed we aimed again for the distinctive house and the point and leapt out. ‘Only 900m to go!’ I yelled, but we were diverted onto part of the route that had been missed out on the first run due to uncooperative tides!

Race leaders (Jonathan and Ben) coming over the rock section

We picked our way over fascinating rocks that merited a return visit later on, then scrambled up a cliff and along a narrow path at the top, with Marie still trying to make me run despite the precariousness! (‘You never know who might be coming after us’, she insisted). Down the steep grassy bank, into the village and back to the lawn, touching the flag to finish!

Us running up from the cliff scramble

I had a lovely time and my leg held up OK, only a bit of discomfort. The weekend hadn’t finished though, with pizzas, cider, curry for dinner and speakers. We won a pair of Vivobarefoot shoes for our efforts, only being beaten by two male pairs.

Post race: ‘I’m thirsty’ … Just one of these was quite enough!

In the morning, we had the delightful experience of swimrun group training as many of us set off to see some of the planned course that had had to be cut due to conditions. Lovely cliff top running down to a bay, swimming up to a rock arch that I decided was too dangerous to swim through … this time. Tumbled and turned by rollers on the way back. More running, some jumping, a second short swim and back to the house, where brunch was spread out invitingly, just waiting for us to tuck in.

Everyone started heading home after a bit of clearing up, but we had the rest of the day to spare. We went off to Dartmouth to see the castle and go and explore the coastal walk, coves and an old fort before escaping just as it got dark and returning for leftover curry.

I had such a good time and the effect on my mood was worth more than any detrimental effect to my hamstring (which, to be honest, seemed no worse for the experience). Massive thanks to Andy and Marie for persuading me to go. Also to Andy and Nigel for persevering with putting on an event for beginners and experienced teams alike, all in the face of crazy weather and dubious coastguards. Finally to everyone else who helped make this happen, to the volunteers and other racers who were so congenial, and to Vivobarefoot for their generous support. We felt we were being treated like royalty (or rock stars, according to Marie) and it was a privilege to be there. Thanks!

Sunset and rainbows at Compass Cove

Captivating pebbles

Pictures from me, Marie and Vivobarefoot team.

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Loveswimrun Holy Island 2018

Following some time off after Ötillö, the plan was to do some fun bits and pieces before launching into a winter of trail running. Unfortunately, a minor hamstring niggle I’ve had for over a year flared up – a parkrun was the last overload straw. But I had already entered this event and was booked to go and see my dad and for Andy to do his first ever swimrun, so off we went!

A week of rest and I lined up at the start slightly anxiously. The first run was straight down a hill, the sun was shining, the sea was blue and the views were great. My legs seemed fine too, which was a relief!

I have done a few coastal swimruns before and I do love them. This one is a great length for beginners as well as more experienced people, and some of the swims were a bit ‘exciting’ even for me! We swam out between towering cliffs, round rocky headlands and weaved our way through buoys and across bays. The running was mostly along the coastal paths.

Homemade flapjack at the feed station spurred me on as I tried to hold off the male and mixed pairs (I had a 5 minute head start) whilst catching as many male solos (who set off 5 mins early) as possible! I met Andy just before the second swim and even got a quick kiss! I was pleased to see he was looking cheerful.

On one of the long runs, my hamstring started telling me it wasn’t better after all, but I did my best and battered on. For so late in the year, it was actually quite warm and the final climb up the hill on the road to the finish line had me huffing and puffing. My dad cheered me in and then we did the same for Andy.

A perfect day then for lounging around, catching with people and eating the wood fired pizza that came out of the van 🙂

I was 1st female, 9th overall. Results here – but you have to filter out the people who just ran all the way – yes, it was official, as they were doing the ‘Holy Trail’ race on at the same time! Andy did well too, as he was almost inside the top third and I may have even heard him say ‘it was better than a triathlon’ !! 😉

Many thanks to Jonny and Chloe at Loveswimrun for putting on another super race. Highly recommended! And you can even extend your trip and enjoy some of the other delights that North wales has to offer. Also to photographers wildmanmitchell and SportpicturesCymru.

Sunny presentations!

Ötillö Swimrun World Championships 2018

(for a taste of the race here is the official video. We star, for maybe 1 or 2 seconds near the end!)

Our fourth, and possibly final, Ötillö world champs was preceded by a relaxed few days in Stockholm, enjoying the scenery, eating and sleeping. We needed it as due to new race logistics, on race day we had to get out of bed when the night had barely started. It didn’t make a lot of difference, 03:30 is as bad as 04:30.

Our goal was to go faster than last year. We had a plan, which suggested sub-11h was realistic. Part one of this plan was a strong first swim to get in a good position on the rocks in case there was crowding (more teams in the race than ever before). At the last minute on the start line, I wonder if we were too far back. In fact, we were right at the back! But it was too late, the gun went and we were off.

We followed the long line of paced runners to the beach and as we swam across strongly, passing teams, I kept thinking about how much further up we might have been! But there was plenty of time to go.

We had discussed the need to ‘claim our space’ on the rocks, to let teams work their own way past. However, we moved well and were actually holding our position. On review, we made up a lot of time here compared to last year, helped perhaps by the dry rocks, but I think also our mindset.

On the first longer run it was time to pick up the pace. At the feed station we were 10 mins up on the plan. We were going so fast, so well, but at end I felt the tow suddenly go tight. I willed Izzy to hang on in there, promising a ‘rest’ very soon … and then we were back swimming and short runs through the woods and over logs.

At the next long swim we paused and could see everyone bow to the left. I aimed off to the right and we held a lovely direct line (as revealed by checking our gps trace later). At the time we could only ponder if we had been genius or insane as we approached the shore a very different way to our fellow competitors.

In and out we went until the next longer run. I was going to consult on strategy but Izzy beat me to it and asked me to take it back half a percent. She was still positive though, and I was happy. We held a fair speed and at the next check we were still ahead of plan by 10 minutes.

I break the race into chunks I can remember and next up is ‘more in and out and two longer swims’.

Part of the plan was to do the swims a little bit faster. This was generally the case, but the pig swim was slower. Compared to some other years, it was like a mill pond and not pig-like in the slightest. I can only imagine we had a wind or current in our favour last year!

At the next long one there was lots of discussion with a marshal about where to aim. I didn’t understand as the flag seemed clear. We jumped in, I checked  for something to aim for on land above the flag and we set off. The flag did not appear to be coming into view and we stopped to check. It had vanished. That would be because it was attached to a boat … Izzy said ‘there’s the landing flag, just to the right of the gap!’. Ah yes the gap, that is what I was aiming for … Lesson in this … We meant very different things by ‘gap’! Eventually I corrected but it was not our finest line. The team to our left did much worse though… Not sure flags on boats criss-crossing the line of sight to the landing flag are all that helpful!

Just before the short swim to Ornö we met Josefine at the feed station, who was giving out hugs of encouragement – much appreciated to help us brace for the final big test!

We landed and I knew we had been losing time but only our 10 minute ‘buffer’ – we were now on plan and I said so. Izzy is surprised. This is when we needed to push on. I set off like a rabbit, but the tow immediately went tight. It was so hard. I knew I couldn’t maintain anything like this and my head needed to calm down and be sensible. Maybe we were paying for our earlier pace. I had worried about this, but if you want to achieve a time you have to commit.

The track was intermittently stony and we had to ease off. Then we got onto easier roads. We had cabbed down our wetsuits but I was so, so hot. I was not happy at all and ‘may’ have said rude things about this particular leg of the race, but Izzy did a great job of encouraging me and motivating us. It was so good for lifting my mood.

At the feed station I checked progress. We were now down on our plan, but there had been some slack in it. I say I think if we can just match last year’s speed from here, we can still do 11h. Objectively we were still doing well, it was better than it felt, we were catching a few teams and not getting caught. Mentally I was boosted, but physically the heat was still a battle and I felt nauseous. I am a bad weather girl!

Later our stats tell us we were slower over Ornö, not faster as planned. My dreams of a sub 11 or even better had faded. But we jumped into the sea with friends Christophe and Emmanuel and we all four whooped with delight and were so happy to be in the cool water 🙂

Here last year, the short swims were hell but now they were so still and easy. We tried to focus, though the technical terrain was now testing both mind and body.

Eventually we got out for the final run. Izzy said to me ‘clear these rocks then you can pull as hard as you like and I will just get on with it and whimper behind’. I check my watch. 10h40 with about 3.5km to go including some rocks and at least one hill. I say ‘we cannot break 11h but we will beat last year’. Then I go for it. I always like a sprint finish regardless 😉

(check this out – from 11:09:21)

We passed a couple of teams but stuck to our own thing. Izzy asked me how far to go. 2km. She managed to scoff an emergency gel without breaking stride! We were filmed for the live webcast for our last 4 mins … up that hill, on and on, both giving it everything we had. We crossed the line. I stopped my watch. I glanced down and questioned myself, knowing I had accidentally paused it at some point in the race. I looked up at gantry but it was true – 10:58:54! We smashed the last run and we were both so happy. There were big hugs, then tears of emotion from me. I couldn’t even breathe!

We sat and drank coke and got a shower. Everyone was so fast this year, our position felt disappointing. But we cannot control the competition or the weather. So we enjoyed the vibe and catching up with friends. And then we were on the boat heading to the airport for an early flight the next day.

We met our target, but in a slightly different way from the plan. I’ve got mixed feelings about this, but in the end we got it done and it is so good to get a time to our names starting 10 something … in 4 years we have taken 2h off our time, and that is not to be sniffed at.

The dream team will still do some other races together though – maybe even another one this year!

Many thanks to our supporters and this year especially to Matt at Improve My Running … I was trying my best to maintain form!

I also want to dedicate this report to our dear friend Jim, who died a week after the race. He was an outdoorsy sort who loved wild swimming. He was always up for an adventure and pushing his boundaries and had come with me to some MTB / run races. He followed our progress avidly and helped us with various training sessions. We’ll all miss his companionship and unique take on life. X

Breca Gower swimrun

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

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

Mass start

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

View out to Worm’s Head

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

There be sharks …

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

One of the exits from sea to land

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

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

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

We found this washed up barrel jellyfish before the race

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

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

The beach run that went on and on

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

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

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

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

The run down to Brandy Cove

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

Swim exit

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

Several swims involved going round the point to the next bay

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

Some swim entries were interesting

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

Checking out the race route features beforehand

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

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

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

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

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

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

All smiles at the end, sitting in shade

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

Isles of Scilly Swimrun – Ötillö world series

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

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

First swim exit

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

Our private beach one afternoon

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

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

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

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

Dancing dolphins on Tresco, just before a swim entry

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

Sprint finish

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

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

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

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

Ötillö World Series – 1000 Lakes – The Double

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

Autumn colours just starting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sprint podium

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

Start of long race

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

View down the first long swim

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

Long line of swimmers on the first run out of Wesenberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ötillö Swimrun World Championships 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cunning Plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chaos on the first swim exit

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

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

Follow the coastline

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

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

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

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

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

Negotiating a swim exit

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

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

Water, water everywhere

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

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

Tricky to run in places like this!

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

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

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

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

Climbing course!

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

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

Typical Stockholm trail through the woods

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

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

Scrambling up and over rocks, a feature of the day

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

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

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

Wind whipping the surface of the sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

The staff are dedicated!

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

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

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

Finish line delight!

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

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

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

Cunning Plan – The Results

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

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

Also want to say thanks to…

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

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

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

Big Brutal Swim – 5km

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

Looks perfect for a swim

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

The calm, calm conditions

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

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

Spotted checking out the course!

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

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

We all swim away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swimrun Bologna

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

The first climb

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

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

An early transition

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

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

When you realise you’ve aimed for the wrong thing

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

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

Swimmers crossing the lake

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

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

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

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

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

Rockman Swimrun

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

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

Views of the mountains from our post-race hike

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

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

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

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

Contemplating the start

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

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

Views above Preikestolen

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

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

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

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

Time for a quick snap of us on Preikestolen

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

Views above Preikestolen

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

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

Typical woodland trail

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

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

Running high above the fjord

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

Swimming in the fjord next to steep sided hills

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

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

The easy bit

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

Rocky slabs

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

View across the fjord – we came down that hill somewhere

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

Rockman

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

Typical swimming in the fjord

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

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

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

The steps!! Just a few of them …

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

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

Ruth at the ready!

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

Racers completing the final swim leg

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

The race is front page local news!

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

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

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

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

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

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