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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 🙂

Loch Gu Loch

Loch Ness. Photo Andy Kirkland

Loch Ness. Photo Andy Kirkland

Less than 3 weeks after finishing Ötillö, we were on the start line for Loch Gu Loch, a Scottish Highlands version of the same race. Why? Because we wanted to do at least one of the new UK races this year and this is the only one we could make. Plus, it was run by the same people behind Celtman, so we knew it would be a good event. It’s always nice to be at the first edition of a race that could become iconic 🙂

Our accommodation and race HQ was at the stunning Highland Club, an old monastery at the southern end of Loch Ness. Sadly, we had to leave our cosy beds far too early in the morning to make our way blearily to the boat that would take us to the start, leaving at 5:30 am. Our table top doubled up as a full ‘info board’ and another time I’d have pored over it. Sadly, we couldn’t see anything outside because it was dark, and I was too preoccupied eating last minute snacks (BeetIt bar), queueing for the toilet and smearing myself with chamois cream.

See if you can find us! Orange socks, towards the right. Photo Steve Ashworth.

See if you can find us! Orange socks, towards the right. Photo Steve Ashworth.

Urquhart Castle was the majestic setting for the start. Now it was just about light and we could admire it perched on an outcrop overlooking the loch. Once bags were dropped and photo shoots were done, we got into the allegedly very cold water. I was ready to go, but there seemed to be a long gap between getting in and the starting horn …

The general route of the race is to cross Loch Ness, climb the hill on the other side, then work back to the start, covering various smaller lochs before a final uphill sting, a trip via the many small islands of Loch Tarff and a descent back to cross Loch Ness to the finish. Total stated distance about 8km swimming and 47km running (we measured it 7.5km / 50km).

I found the first leg particularly stressful. Unlike Ötillö, there had been no run to spread us out. I tried to follow the feet of Dechlan and Lyndsey (who were sharing our apartment), but they were just a touch too fast. Not to worry, they had bright green wetsuit arms and were perfect to sight off. I know Dechlan and trusted he would go the right way.

Later I tried to draft a guy with big blue paddles, but almost got whacked in the face. Izzy had been tapping my feet, which is normal. But then suddenly it seemed as if crowds of people had swarmed up and were about to overtake us. I was panicking, thinking I was swimming like a snail, and tried to speed up. I was swallowing water and felt a bit sick. As we came in to land, Izzy swam up beside me. Turns out she was caught up in the excitement and trying to beat some people next to us!

Water levels have risen a bit. Is that why this swim was 150m longer than we were led to believe? ;-) Photo Andy Kirkland

Water levels have risen a bit. Is that why this swim was 150m longer than we were led to believe? 😉 Photo Andy Kirkland

We were on dry land and Paul (one of the organisers) shouted a well done at us. We were off up the hill. Now I had terrible stomach cramps, one ear was full of water so I couldn’t hear properly, and my feet were so cold I couldn’t feel the ground. Izzy was great, running alongside and encouraging me along. One by one my problems subsided. I shook my head a few times and managed to unblock my ear. My feet gradually came back to life. And Izzy demonstrated how to do magnificent burps, so that my own eventually eased my stomach distress!

Towards the end of the first run, a few teams were catching us. We swam a small loch and got a cheer from my coach, Scott, who was on kayak duty. Next run, a few more teams came past. It seems we had been faster swimmers and now the good runners were making their mark.

Ready? Go! Photo Andy Kirkland

Ready? Go! Photo Andy Kirkland

As we approached the first swim across Loch Mhor, we were ready to go. Our exits from the water still need a bit of polishing, but our entries are slick! We passed several teams milling about zipping their wetsuits up and getting kit sorted. We were straight in and swimming. We passed a couple more teams at the next aid station as we did our usual: drink a couple of cups and grab some food to eat on the way out. The piper appeared here, signalling our approach. Loved him, he kept popping up all over the place round the course!

Next up we reached Andy, marshalling a swim entrance. I knew this was the half way point. He told us what was going on at the front of the field, confirmed that we were first female pair and said we were about 8th overall. We were enjoying the swims and the terrain, which were very similar to what we’d trained on – unlike the trials of the slippery Ötillö rocks!

Action shot. Photo Steve Ashworth.

Action shot. Photo Steve Ashworth.

I think the pressure of knowing we were up front was stressing Izzy a bit. As we got to the next swim a marshal said cheerfully “first female pair!”. “Not any more!”, she blurted, as a mixed pair caught us up, with the chap having long hair! She apologised profusely … 😀

Another run and swim, and we started the longest run of the day: 16km of mixed off- and on- road, with a significant climb in the second half. Logic was telling me that our position was probably fairly secure. No other girls had caught us by the halfway point, the other people we’d left behind weren’t making ground – and if any other female pair were going to catch up, they’d have to be storming through the field to get to us. Our slick transitions and feed stops had given us an advantage, and now our endurance was kicking in.

Baaa! Photo Steve Ashworth.

Baaa! Photo Steve Ashworth.

Still, you can’t bank on anything in racing. We stayed alert to all the course markings. Some teams went wrong at a few places, but we didn’t have any difficulties following the course. Not only were we eagle eyed at every junction for potential arrows, I had also spent a lot of time memorising the map. It wasn’t a precise ‘photograph’, but I knew all the section lengths, major turns, terrain type, elevation profile and general direction.

As we climbed gradually on a section that pretended to be flat, we could see the scar of a road cresting a pass up ahead. I pointed, saying “I bet that’s where we’re going” … and so we were. We approached from a fire road and a nice path that zig-zagged up towards the viewpoint before continuing up and over the high point of the race. I’d been noting our pace and splitting the run into 5km chunks. I thought it was good news when I announced we probably only had 20-25 minutes to go to the swim. “25 minutes?!” shouted an exasperated Izzy, almost stamping her foot … Er, oops, sorry, that was meant to be encouraging!

There were beautiful views, but I was mindful of my footing. I wanted to let loose on the descent, but Izzy was more wary and was having a sugar slump. Luckily, we could see Loch Tarff below us and knew the feed station was right there.

Nearly finished the long run. Photo Steve Ashworth.

Nearly finished the long run. Photo Steve Ashworth.

We were both tired now. A kayaker shouted at us – “head for the green arrow!”. But it was a small arrow, and I couldn’t see it! Still, we got there and fought through heather and bracken to get over and into the next bit. We clearly had some supporters here, with one guy singing ‘here come the giii-rls!’ and shouting our names – we don’t know who you were, but thanks!! Also Scott and Judyta were here again. Scott said we looked strong – I said we felt wasted! Later he said, if you felt like that, you should have seen how the people behind looked …

Coach! Photo Andy Kirkland

Coach! Photo Andy Kirkland

We finished the penultimate swim through a dark swampy, reedy mass, emerging to face the final 6km run.

6km, doesn’t sound like much, does it? But we were soon moving only slowly round the loch across trackless heather. We saw one of the big blue arrows on a white board up ahead pointing left, then could pick out a string of red arrows dancing straight up the hill. A team in front (the ones with the big blue paddles from the first swim!) went straight on, but they were out of earshot as we shouted out to them.  As we started going up, they reappeared, having realised their mistake and corrected.

Now I was using my hands and could really feel our cord pulling. Suddenly Izzy had a mini meltdown. There were threats to unclip the cord (“what good would that do?”, I say), I got shouted at when I tried to push, and offers of food were useless as she felt sick and dizzy. We slowed and I just went at her pace. So long as we kept moving, I was happy. It wasn’t far to go. I think we both kept thinking, who might suddenly appear behind us?

The view of the finish line. All downhill from here! Photo Steve Ashworth.

The view of the finish line. All downhill from here! Photo Steve Ashworth.

We got to the top and the panoramic vista laid out below us was amazing. We could see the finish, and emotion welled up in me! A suggestion to start jogging this downhill bit was met with a positive response, as was a soggy packet of Honey Stingers. We were back on it!

A couple of teams had overtaken, but as we got to the fire road, we ate and drank again, then passed them. We even drew close to blue-paddles team again as they hesitated about the right way to go. We had our doubts too, as we went through someone’s gateway and across what looked like a fancy drive. Just as we started to wonder what to do, we saw a bit of tape in a tree. Phew! Down and down we went, this run was turning out to be longer than the stated 6km. 7.1km according our gps – cheeky!

Piper. Photo Steve Ashworth.

Piper. Photo Steve Ashworth.

My big toe joint was killing me, but I ignored it. We jumped into the final swim just behind team 45, aka blue paddles, Jan and Matus Kriska. They were heading off at a funny angle, so I double-checked where we had to aim. We were told: just left of the abbey, the red flag. Well, red was pretty hard to see … but left of the grey towers of the abbey I could just about deal with. “So, not where they’re going?” I asked. No. So, off we went. My calf kept threatening to cramp, and I had to stop pointing my toes. Not very streamlined, but necessary!

Let's swim again. Photo Andy Kirkland

Let’s swim again. Photo Andy Kirkland

Eventually we drew close. And then we grounded. Argh! We stood up and waded a bit, before I decided it was deep enough to swim again (i.e. knee deep). Then we swam to shore. I looked around for the dibber but was told, no not here – run for the finish! Andy was taking pictures. We took our hat and goggles off and organised ourselves for a side by side run up the steps and across the lawn.

Look at that! A tape! I’ve never got to break a finishing tape before! What excitement.

Finshing Line! Photo John Whittaker

Finishing Line! Photo John Whittaker

We were soon wrapped up in foil blankets, drinking hot drinks. I was feeling all emotional again, but had to laugh at Andy wearing fine moss hair under his cap. We were astonished to find we were 5th overall. In the end, it was worth almost more than the win in our class, which turned out to be emphatic. Full results here. Short film here – see if you can spot us wading at the end!

Great support from the marshals and people we knew on course. Also to other competitors we made friends with or chatted to along the way.  I couldn’t get over how many people thanked me or remarked on our top tips and videos – it’s great to know people found them useful, though I apologise for not remembering or knowing who you all were! 🙂

Silver blankets are de rigeur. Photo Andy Kirkland

Silver blankets are de rigeur. Photo Andy Kirkland

Quite a few people have asked us how this race compares to Ötillö. I’d say it’s easier. This race is shorter and the swims are less difficult and dangerous. The terrain is more forgiving (providing, perhaps, you’re used to heather and bracken!). For comparison, we finished over 4h quicker despite ‘backing up’ with Ötillö, and our average speeds were higher. There are fewer transitions, so it’s easier to get into a rhythm. Having said all that, Loch Gu Loch has lots more hills, the swims are cold and it still counts as ‘tough’ in my book. I’ve heard it might be in the summer next year, which could make it a perfect preparation race if you happen to be doing Ötillö! It’s also a fine challenge in its own right.

Many thanks to Head / sportextreme.com, Gococo socks, BeetIt and Chia Charge (who also provided feed station snacks this time!). Also to the organisers for putting on a great event.

Time now to let my sore toe get better, wait for the tiredness go away and dust down my mountain bike 🙂

Ötillö – Swimrun World Championship 2015

At the finish line! The only actual picture of us racing ...

At the finish line! The only picture of us actually racing …

After months of preparation we were on the start line for Ötillö at 6am in the gloom of early morning light. We’d already had two nights of ‘feels like we hardly slept at all’, experiencing an almighty thunderstorm back in Stockholm and an early start and nerves on Sandhamn. In our 3 days in Stockholm we had eaten enough to sink two battleships, had a delightful costume-only swim in a lake, kicked back in a sauna, gone for a 5km jog, contorted ourselves on a portable foam roller and met up with friends who popped over from Finland. We had left strange piles of empty beetroot juice bottles by the bins and scribbled all over my hand paddles. We were ready.

As several mixed couples had a pre-start kiss I felt left out … so I got a cheek-to-cheek and air kiss from Izzy! Then we were off. After running in silence for a minute or two Izzy said: “Thanks for doing this with me. I thought I should say it now in case I feel differently later”. I was equally grateful to be racing with her and couldn’t believe our moment was finally here.

Ö till Ö 2015, Foto: JakobEdholm.com

The first swim at sunrise

As we got to the beach we looked across the expanse of sea to the next island. 1.7km, just over a mile. There was a strobe light, but as soon as we got in, I lost sight of it and just aimed for a suitable looking bit of land. We had plenty of other racers around us and were overtaking those who had set off fast. I got disorientated part way over, seeing rocks on the seabed below us. How was it so shallow in the middle?! The first time I got a taste of the water I was pleasantly surprised. It was almost like a salty sports hydration drink, and did not induce the sort of sounds that we get from North Sea mouthfuls (think; cat with a fur ball in its throat).

As soon as we got out we were in for a shock. It doesn’t matter how many photos you look at, how many videos you watch or how many people you speak to who have been there before. You can’t know how the terrain really is until you experience it. Slabs of wet, slippery rock and boulders. I am not the most sure-footed and Izzy felt worse. Our practice attempts at uneven get-ins and outs were no match for this!

Team after team streamed past us. I tried to stay calm and kept moving until the next short swim, when I slipped forwards. I could feel myself going and did a ‘superman’ move to distribute the impact, bashing my knee hard and scuffing my palms. Someone helped me up and we jumped right in the water. I felt a bit shaky and my knee was sore. I imagined I had cracked my knee cap, until I realised that was probably ridiculous and I had better just get on with the job in hand.

The golden source of information all day

The golden source of information all day

Some time later we had just 4.5km run to get to the first checkpoint. I checked the scribbles: we were well off our target pace. But, hang on! I suddenly realised we were cutting it fine to even make the cut-off, something I had not anticipated at all. We had 35 minutes, no problem for a normal run, but we had no idea what the terrain would be like and we had already been on the move for 2.5 hours. There was no way we could allow ourselves to go out of this race, let alone at 9am.

Soon we were breathing heavily and finding it hard to talk. When I asked Izzy to check our pace on her gps watch we were under 5 minutes / km. Panic spurred us on and we fell into transition with 14 minutes to spare. Little did we know it, but we were almost at the back of the field, with only about 15 teams behind.

From that point on I kept an eagle eye on the time cut offs. I knew we had to build more of a buffer. The effort had taken a lot out of us and we were using the tow. I was worried because I knew I couldn’t pull for the long 20km run to come. Izzy later said she had been feeling low as well, demoralised by our difficulties on the rocks.

Difficult sea conditions

Difficult sea conditions

Although the first swim had felt fairly tame, things were going to get more interesting. Several of the crossings had strong crosswinds, currents and waves. I am sure if I had been on holiday and stood on the rocks looking out to sea I’d have decided it wasn’t possible (or safe) to swim. But here we were, clambering in and setting off towards another elusive strobe light.

We already knew that small-looking waves on land can seem huge when you’re in them with just your head above water. But these appeared quite big to start with! A few times I’d turn to breathe and almost roll over, getting a wave right over my mouth and missing a breath.

We also had to aim to the right of where we actually wanted to go. This was quite fun, as you could physically feel the angle of the wind and currents against you, and by keeping this angle constant go in a straight line. It almost reduced the need for sighting! Which was useful, since half the time all I saw when I lifted my head up was water …

It felt dangerous and it felt exhilarating. Most of the time we were strong and effective and knew we were passing or leaving teams behind on each swim.

Some interesting places to get out

Some interesting places to get out

I did have one aiming glitch, when we came the wrong way round a rocky outcrop and got grounded in shallow water. After one swim I felt tired, so we swapped the lead for the next – and I apologise to Izzy for my inability to follow properly!

The second cut off came and went and now we started making good time, moving at the pace we had hoped to go at from the start. We still only had 31 minutes in hand though. We tried to be efficient in feed stations, stopping to drink two or three cups of water or energy drink and picking up food to eat whilst we walked out and kept moving.

The infamous ‘pig swim’ loomed large. I almost wished no-one had told us anything about this difficult swim! But in the briefing we were informed some people might take an hour over it. Really? For 1400m? At any rate, I was determined this would not be us and set my stop watch as we got in.

We emerged smiling and triumphant on the other side after 29 minutes of swimming. My swimming mojo had returned 🙂 . We had spectators here, cheering and handing us a Twix bar. Izzy asked me something but I could only say “I’m trying to climb up these rocks, eat a Twix and do a wee all at the same time … but I will answer when at least one of those things is finished with!” We passed through the third cut off with 61 minutes to spare.

Tricky terrain in the woods

Tricky terrain in the woods

The next section of the race is a bit of a haze. I am not sure what happened, but we slowed down somewhat. My knee was sore from both the fall and the slight injury I was carrying from an adventure race in Ireland 5 weeks earlier. We were tiring of the hard conditions underfoot. We were also moving inexorably closer towards the 20km run section, which I was more afraid of than the pig swim.

Finally we were there, 55 minutes before the cut off. I was doing a lot of mental calculations about how fast we needed to move to make the final time cut. I knew it should be OK but also knew we were both tired. Our legs were sore and quads were burning. I burbled out loud to Izzy who pretended to sound interested, in much the same way as she had when I tried to describe our swims against the wind in terms of vectors of the forces acting against us relative to our direction of intended travel …

Physics in action

Physics in action

The result was that we had to run each km in at least 8 minutes. I decided to set my stopwatch and ask for a distance check every 8 minutes. All very well in theory, though by the time we were getting to 12 x 8 and beyond, the maths was making my head hurt. Not to worry; it was a great distraction.

After 8 minutes we’d done 1.3km. After 16, 2.5km. Then a tricky section where we only covered 1km in the time slot. Soon we were back on wide tracks and asphalt roads. The km ticked by and we gained 200-300m every 8 minutes.

We rewarded ourselves with a pack of Honey Stingers (pomegranate) halfway to the first feed station. We passed through someone’s back garden and a lady with a team list shouted “Go Rosemary! Rule Britannia!” – now that’s dedicated supporting! Small children sat on the verges shouting “Heja! Heja!” and our feet fell into the rhythm of their chants.

As we stuck to our own pace, we steadily passed teams. 10 of them, in fact. I’m sure I saw a snake as we tripped along, but Izzy was beyond caring (unless it ate her, in which case, she stated, she’d be pleased it had ended the run). Enthusiasm was dipping somewhat but we pushed on, maintaining an average speed of 6:09/km, which I was pretty pleased with considering we were already nearly 50km in to this race at the start of it! To Izzy’s displeasure I insisted we wriggled back into our wetsuits before the start of the next swim, on a section that had us walking anyway. And soon we were back at the sea, the final cut off, 39 minutes to spare.

After a moment where I celebrated and Izzy greeted a playful dog, we just had the final section to go. We were going to do this thing. A bit of running, a bit of swimming.

The trouble was that we no longer trusted our legs. They were wobbly on the uneven stones and refused to work as we hauled ourselves out of each swim. The transitions we’d practised so often were getting slower and more fiddly and no sooner had we got our legs working on the ‘runs’ (walks?) it was time to swim again. Finding the route, watching for the colourful marker strips in the trees that had shown the way like a dance all day. Sometimes we couldn’t see them even as they were right in front of our eyes. Our pace had dropped again. Perhaps without the focus of the cut offs our minds were less strong to will our tired bodies on.

Try doing this when you're tired

Try doing this when you’re tired

At last we started the final 3.2km run. We forced ourselves to ignore our screaming muscles and run properly. As we looked up ahead I remarked “oh, a phalanx of teams”. We drew closer and saw that Pippa Middleton (celebrity sister of Kate Middleton, royal, in case you’re not up with these things … ) was amongst them. Our friends had urged us to make sure we beat her, and I admit we were surprised she had still been in front of us! We might have sped up somewhat as we gunned for the line. 1.5km more and we were faced with a cruel uphill finish. Then we were there.

We celebrated, we moved forwards, I collapsed onto a bench and started crying from all the emotion. We had actually made it! We had (as is my wont) under-estimated the difficulty of the undertaking. We had our highs and lows, times when we felt weary and wondered how we’d ever finish in time, and times when we were high on the craziness of what we were doing. Now we had done it. We had finished a World Championship race and we were proud.

ÖTILLÖ 2015

I won’t lie. The week after has been tough … talk about post-race blues! The body and joints are tired and achey, my knee hurts and my emotional state is unpredictable at best 😉 . The thoughts of ‘we could have done better’ are creeping in, and we have moved from ‘not next year’ to ‘maybe next year, if we could get in again’. We both want to conquer those slippery rocks that drained us of so much physical and mental energy and time at the start!

Izzy is emphatic that it is the toughest thing she has ever done (despite several Ironmans and Celtman under her belt). I probably agree: multi-day adventure races are a test of sleep deprivation and endurance but the intensity is much lower.

I still keep reminding myself that only 1 in 4 people who want to do this race are selected to start. We swam 10km and ran 65km in one day. Two things I have never achieved before. I will hold onto those facts, even though they seem unreal 🙂 .

Many thanks to our sponsors and supporters for this race: Head (wetsuit and goggles) Gococo socks (blister free compression heaven) and BeetIt (nitrate power). It has been pointed out I should thank my long-suffering colleagues, friends, family and boyfriend for putting up with almost a year of Ötillö chat, trials and tribulations. Also my coach, Scott, for his sage advice. And finally, my straight-talking physio Graham, who has endless patience, a cheeky sense of humour and without whom I might not have even made it to the start line.

Now all we need to do is recover enough to do it all over again at Loch Gu Loch – a Scottish equivalent based around Loch Ness, but slightly shorter. Then I can get my bike back out and slide gracefully into winter racing.

Borås Swimrun

According to the race briefing notes 🙂

“And by “I don´t have a partner” I don´t mean match making but a partner for the race. Use our FaceBook page for any last minute replacements or requests. Who knows what a new race partner will lead to though…”

This bit was easy. Izzy and I are racing at Ötillö in September and we needed to practice! We chose Borås swimrun, to the east of Gothenburg. It fitted our schedule, was relatively cheap and easy to get to and a good first race distance to try. The format was similar, but instead of swimming between and running across islands, we swam in little pools, zig-zagged across a large lake and ran up a lot of hills. Overall, 14 runs totalling 29km and 13 swims totalling 5km.

A view down the length of Öresjö. Looks a long way!

A view down the length of Öresjö. Looks a long way!

Unfortunately, Izzy got sick on Monday night before the race and didn’t eat for two days. Luckily, by Thursday she had enough energy to pack, but even at the airport on Friday she was feeling a bit unsteady. Uh oh! Saturday’s plan was to eat and eat …

“For a complete information regarding accommodation please visit http://www.borasboras.se. Yes, that´s right, TWO Borås in that web address – that´s how awesome Borås is!”

Well, we didn’t use the website because a friend at my Italian class had told us all about airbnb. I’d never heard of it before, but after a quick search, we were booked in to stay with the lovely Peter and Monica just outside town. More on their generous hosting later, but this worked out really well for us.

“And for the love of God, make sure to cut your wetsuits above the knee joint! You´ll thank me after the race…”

Almost everyone at Ötillö chops the arms and legs off their wetsuits. This makes it easier to run, reduces the risk of chaffing your bendy bits (backs of knees, insides of elbows) and means you can easily pull your wetsuit off your upper body to run if you want to.

Chop, chop ...

Chop, chop …


 
Ouch!

Ouch!

 
 

Despite laughing when I read a race report from last year, where the competitor had chopped their wetsuit at the start line, we found ourselves with this job still to do on Saturday! One of the advantages of staying with a family was we could ask to borrow scissors. Even better, Monica works with textiles and is a designer, so we got a proper pair to use!

We spent all morning drawing lines on our suits and cutting bits off them.  This was followed by some intensive dry land transition practice, which was when Peter arrived home. We hastily explained why we were running round his house, joined with a bungee cord and wearing wetsuits, pull buoys, swimming hats and goggles. He just looked slightly bemused 😀

“We won´t, however, distribute smaller race maps for you, the competitors. In our experience they don´t really serve a purpose and are never looked at. To keep track of the course we recommend you to write down all the swims and runs on your hand paddles or fore arms. Maybe even get a tattoo with it.”

We had hired a car so it was easy to drive out to the race area in the afternoon and have a look around. We went on a little walk round some of the course, and I studied the maps. It was all becoming clear what we had to do, though looking down the lake and knowing we would be right at the far end, out of sight, was a bit daunting!

Route notes, side 1

Route notes, side 1

I also wrote all the route stages on a small piece of paper and laminated it in an unused membership card holder. After I had done that and looked at the map many times, I had the route firmly ‘tattooed’ onto my mind!

“Weather: We will have weather”

We could feel the wind buffeting the car on the way to the start on Sunday morning. But when we arrived the lake (Öresjö) looked fairly calm. I mused that perhaps further down, it would be less sheltered and the wind would have got some waves up. I wish I’d been wrong!

The day before. Everything looks so tranquil ...

The day before. Everything looks so tranquil …

The water hadn’t warmed up as much as the organisers had hoped, so the long swim at the end had been shortened. We did still have to do 5km in total, with one leg of 1.3km. The water was about 11ºC. Cold, but not unlike our training conditions. Unfortunately, we hadn’t yet swum in a wetsuit with missing bits, but there was nothing we could do about that now!

“Since we have a lot of teams on hand and a very narrow beginning of the first run, we´ll send off every category separately to avoid any unnecessary queuing. If you still end up queuing you may consider this a blessing in disguise as the first run features an ascend of 120 metres. SMART PEOPLE WALK THE START (official race slogan)”

With about 10 minutes to go we were standing in all our kit ready to go and listening to the briefing. I was looking at everyone else’s clothing and kit choices, to see what we could learn. Suddenly I noticed timing chips on people’s ankles. Argh! Where was ours?! Izzy sprinted back to the car to retrieve it just in time!

Then we were on the start line. Izzy suddenly said to me ‘Don’t go charging off at the start!’ I looked at her, surprised. ‘But I thought that’s exactly what we’d agreed to do, to avoid the queue on the hill?’. ‘I’ve changed my mind’ she said, and I could tell from the look of panic on her face that I’d better listen! So we ran to the hill at a steady pace and walked up.

It was really not a bad strategy, as for the next hour or so we just steadily caught and passed team after team. We didn’t need to ‘burn our matches’ so early in such a long race.

The first run. Theoretically we're probably in shot somewhere, at the back of the line. Photo credit: Johan Valkonen

The first run. Theoretically we’re probably in shot somewhere, at the back of the line. Photo credit: Johan Valkonen

I was sure that we could save a lot of time just being smooth in our transitions. As we neared the top of the hill, I knew the first short swim was close. We went through the routine we’d rehearsed the day before and would repeat throughout the day:

‘zipped up?’ / ‘zipped!’
‘unlooped bungee?’ / ‘yes!’
‘goggles on?’ / ‘goggles on!’
‘paddles ready?’ / ‘ready!’
Then, right at the water’s edge: ‘pullbuoy round?’ / ‘yes!’
‘OK, in we get … ready to go?’ / ‘let’s go!!’

The middle section of the race was one of the hardest. After a number of shorter runs and swims, we had our first big crossing of Öresjö. We were swimming well, despite the waves hitting us from the right. I seemed less thirsty after the three big swims, probably due to the amount of lake I accidentally swallowed! This won’t be so convenient in the sea water of Ötillö.

We overtook a lot of people here, but at one point I started to feel cold and irrationally panicky. I reminded myself of the race briefing: ‘if you get cold, keep swimming!’. I was very relieved to make land on the other side. I think we were being filmed as I shouted ‘we made it!’. A short run round a hill and we were heading back across the lake. It didn’t seem so bad the second time.

“from reading the rules on our web site you should know that your biggest security out there will be your partner. And vice versa. Stay together!”

We were racing using a bungee tow cord. This is quite standard in adventure racing but a strange concept to many triathletes. In the water, it kept us close together. When it was busy, it meant we didn’t lose each other. When we had to cross wide expanses of open water, with the wind whipping up waves and creating white horses it was reassuring for me to know Izzy was never more than 3m away. Practically speaking, by removing the need to keep checking on where we each were meant one less thing to think about. This was significant when also trying to breathe, sight and swim fast enough to stay warm!

Just about smiling still!

Just about smiling still!


 
Before the start. At last I don't look like I'm dressed strangely any more ...

Before the start. At last I don’t look like I’m dressed strangely any more …


 

We did learn it was easy to get tangled up in a bungee when getting out though – something we’re already thinking about how to fix!

The second use is on land, if one of the pair is feeling stronger than the other. I was towing Izzy behind me, feeling the tug on the cord as I gave a helping hand. A race like this is all about teamwork and getting to the finish line as quickly as possible – but still together!

“All race officials will wear yellow vests with a Borås Swimrun logo on them. Be nice to them! The race officials that is. Not the vests.”

As we passed spectators and aid stations, the support was amazing. Every time, people cheered and clapped and shouted. Many things were said to us. Here’s our quick guide to conversing in Swedish during a race:

They say You say
Anything that sounds cheerful, enthusiastic or welcoming Hej hej!
Anything preceding the offer of food or water, or showing the way Tack!
Anything that sounds like important information OK!

 

It was funny when we’d get into the water and Izzy would ask me ‘did you get all that?’. I’d say ‘um, swim to the red flag?’ … I wondered what else there was to say. Perhaps, watch out for killer piranhas?

After running up and down another hill it was time for the longest swim, of 1.3km. The house and garden we were aiming for looked obvious when we started. But soon we seemed to lose sight of other competitors, and sometimes I couldn’t see where we had to go. Each time I sighted, I might see the house we were aiming for, or I might get a view of nondescript land or a wave instead! Halfway over I felt a bit alone and had to stop to double check we were going the right way. We were. My pullbuoy kept working its way down my leg, which was annoying.

Pre race contemplation

Pre race contemplation

At last we could see the landing flag clearly, but there were reeds between us and it. We tried to swim through but they were sharp and unyielding! How frustrating. We had to detour upwind to get round them. Other swimmers came in higher than us and were fine. If there’s a next time I’ll remember this!

Then we hit another patch. They looked smaller this time and we wanted this swim to be over. I could feel my buttocks shaking, whether from cold or tension, I wasn’t sure. We just barged through this time, getting scratches on face, arms and legs. Izzy, who was behind me, seemed to emerge less scathed – perhaps my paddles had hacked a path through!

“DNF (did not finish): Do not DNF.”

We were out, running, but soon back to a river. We got some more unintelligible instructions, but it turns out these ones might have been important. I just got in and started going upriver. I’d told Izzy this was a short swim, and distance-wise, it was. But the current was strong, and the water tasted funny. We kept hitting logs beneath the surface and I saw some people resting at the sides. It was taking forever to get anywhere and I was desperately looking for the exit round every bend.

Racers leave the river of doom. Think our faces probably looked a bit like this too! Photo credit: Johan Valkonen

Racers leave the river of doom. Think our faces probably looked a bit like this too! Photo credit: Johan Valkonen

Soon enough, up ahead I could see fallen trees blocking the way, and a clutch of other racers. I paused to tread water and see what was going on, but was getting dragged backwards! This was quite scary, so I powered forward and caught onto a log. It moved and I had to let go as it floated away. Then I grabbed another and hung on, feeling my legs pulling away from me downstream until Izzy was there too and we could talk. Everyone was getting out, so we followed them and made our way along the shore briefly before jumping back in for a short stretch.

Suddenly we were at an aid station and a timing mat. There were loads of people shouting and cheering. I felt dazed and slightly traumatised!!

“When running on a road, a path or a trail we won´t have as many markers. The rule follows; ”keep running forward until a sign tells you otherwise!” If you, by any chance, find yourself running on said road or trail for a very VERY long time and/or the sun sets, chances are you´ve run the wrong way. Turn back and run back the same way you came. If, on the off-chance someone actually do run the wrong way, we´ll have ice cream for you in the finish area, a free start for next year, a compass and a shoulder to cry on. DON´T RUN THE WRONG WAY!”

As we approached aid stations we’d check what we doing. Were we stopping, and what for? This way we could coordinate and move on quickly without getting annoyed with each other or wasting time. We did carry some food and water and were testing how well this worked. We learnt: soft bottles down a wetsuit leg can easily work their way out. A hard bottle in a flipbelt stays put but is slightly awkward to get in and out. Pockets on the backs of jerseys are hard to use. Pockets in the fronts of wetsuits are easy to use.

I was surprised how difficult it all was. Stuart, a former Ötillö racer, had warmed us that the constant in and out of cold water and change of activity was hard, and he was right. Throughout the race, there was so much to think about. Keeping track of the stages, knowing when a swim was coming up and preparing to transition, planning around aid stations and sighting on the swims. All this will have taken energy and added to the physical demands of constantly getting cold and having to warm up again. It was definitely not the same as swimming 5km then running 29km!

The exit from the first long lake crossing. Photo credit: Johan Valkonen

The exit from the first long lake crossing. Photo credit: Johan Valkonen

On we pressed. This is the first time Izzy and I have raced together. I was looking for clues about how she was feeling; in footfall, breathing, talking and the amount of pull on the tow rope. As we moved along the longest run sections, I could tell she was finding it hard as well.

Even so, we were still steadily catching and passing quite a few male pairs. Despite how we felt, the results show that we were strong in the section after the timing mat, making up ground on (though not catching) the team in front of us, and moving away from the team behind us.

A random short swim across a pond and back was actually a relief, despite us forgetting to zip up our suits. I knew the end was in sight from here, and kept pulling Izzy along and trying to crack jokes. I think I managed one or two laughs, though my ‘chariots of fire’ rendition near the end may have left something to be desired!

“podium placings will receive nice prizes and a lot of admiration from everyone else.”

We had absolutely no idea where we stood in the placings. It’s possible that some of the excited cheering was telling us something, but we didn’t know. Even if we’d kept track at the start it would be impossible to see who was passing who on the swims.

About an hour before the end, I thought I’d seen a girl climbing out in front of us, but wasn’t sure. I knew in any case that we were going as hard as we could, and that what seems close in the water can be much further on land. I decided to minimise potential stress and kept quiet.

20150607_170152

As we finished, we got a hug and medal from the race director. Then he told us ‘you are 3rd female team!’. We were ecstatic and hugged each other and jumped up and down and hugged him again, even though we were wet. In fact, the 2nd placed girls had been just two minutes in front and had known we were behind, so had felt the pressure! 1st place were a long way ahead. We were 15th overall out of 80 finishers, though several teams had to withdraw due to the cold and plenty of others appeared not to start at all. Full results here. We were delighted. This was our first ever swimrun, our first race as a team and we did it off the back of a bad week for Izzy.

We also learnt so much that will help us in September. Right now the thought of doing double that distance is daunting, but at least we are prepared!

“You´ll get some delicious food served after finishing the race.”

“We’re vegetarian. Do you have anything?”.

“You like pasta, yes? You could pick the chicken out?”

Er … No thanks, maybe we’ll just go and buy a cake and drink tea out of a glass before heading into town for a giant Thai tofu curry!

Remind me, which country were we in again? Sweden does giant flags

Remind me, which country were we in again? Sweden does giant flags

We got home tired but satisfied. Peter and Monica had put the sauna on and we were soon indulging in ‘therapeutic’ heat treatment. Something we’d have never got elsewhere!

Many thanks to our sponsors and supporters. Especially Head, whose wetsuit was invaluable and designed for the job. Also BeetIt for giving us the best start and Chia Charge for on the move nutrition and post-race protein bar. Next time we should also be wearing Gococo compression socks – more on those later!

Finally, thanks to Jonas Colting for putting on a great race. I’m sorry I was concentrating too hard on everything else to admire more of the scenery. But he did the most entertaining briefing notes I’ve ever read and everything went smoothly. Prizes were running shorts from Salming and free entry for next year. Let’s see how we feel about that later! 😀

More about Ötillö – this year’s Big Race!

So, it’s been some time since I got over excited in the office about getting to race Ötillö this year. You can read more about it here.

Every year, in about October or November, I start thinking about what my ‘big race next year’ might be. In 2012 it was Celtman. I devoted 2013 to triathlon, particularly the Scottish middle distance championships. In 2014 it was all about Itera.

Training tip 1: persuade your friends to make you an Ötillö cake.

Training tip 1: persuade your friends to make you an Ötillö cake.

I like to have something to work towards, something that I might not be able to achieve tomorrow, or next month, but that is doable in 9 months’ time. I also like endurance races, something quirky and not too mainstream.

So, at the end of last year my eye alighted on Ötillö. I’ve looked at this race several times before and decided it wasn’t for me due to the ‘excessive’ amount of running (65km in total). However, the effect a couple of expedition length adventure races can have on you is that what before were seemingly daunting distances provoke a reaction akin to ‘oh, only …?’. I also got inspired by an episode of the Adventure Show (an ace BBC2 Scotland programme, which airs sort-of monthly, following adventurous races and other goings on!). There was a segment on two chaps running up and down mountains, looking free and comfortable. I wanted to be like them and thought why can’t I run further??

Running with a hint of fish

Running with a hint of fish

And so the wish was born. With a lack of other options grabbing my eye, I set about finding a race partner. This was easier said than done. I encountered a variety of reasons for being turned down, ranging from being a teacher and having to work on a Monday, being too busy studying for exams, concern over getting too cold in the water, expecting a baby, not being able to swim and plain old ‘don’t have time to train for that’. I was also ideally looking for someone who I knew, located somewhere nearby (ish) and of a similar ability to me in both swim and run. I didn’t want big mismatches in either discipline as I thought it could become frustrating.

Eventually, as I almost gave up hope, I found Izzy … so close to home I couldn’t believe I didn’t think of her earlier! She’s even in the same club as me and we had a close race at the inaugural Celtman. Even better, she said ‘yes!’ and the race was on to get our application submitted.

Running with a hint of water

Running with a hint of water

Since then I have been training! Lots of running. If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know I had problems with my hip back in October. After several physio sessions and some determined doing-of-prescribed-exercises, I have been going from strength to strength – pun intended! Whereas the last few years I managed to race on about 20-25km a week, if I was lucky, I can now squeeze in 50km a week and I’m going faster. I find myself wondering since when did running become a valid form of transport? I run to work, the pool and even friend’s houses (“hello, how are you, may I use your shower?”).

Lean, mean, racing machine

Lean, mean, racing machine

Swim training has been interesting. I have found that I can now keep up with the front guys in my lane and go faster than I have for many years. I suspect that I have not got physically better, but that there are strong psychological factors at play. I know I need to swim harder, there is a reason to get better at it, and I therefore believe I need to / can have a go at keeping up with them. 10km of swimming is a rather different prospect to a 1.5km triathlon bimble 😀 .

Learn to swim, Stockholm metro art style

Learn to swim, Stockholm metro style

There have been other things to think about too. Like getting to know Izzy better (we’d only really spoken a handful of times before), reading up about the race and getting kit sorted.

In this regard, we’re delighted to announce that Head Swimming are sponsoring us! They are the only company to offer a full line up of swimrun specific wetsuits. This sport is really popular in Nordic countries, where the brand already has a strong following. We are lucky to be able to train and race in a top of the range suit, so we’ll have no excuses there! If you’re doing any swimrun events and want to know more about what to look out for, just ask. More on that later, with a wetsuit review to come 🙂 .

Head

We’ve also started experimenting with paddles, pull buoys and run tows. We have two great options for open water swimming nearby, but the water has barely warmed up enough to get in (for me, at least!). We braved it twice last week, and are getting used to swimming in shoes and running in a wetsuit.

I like to build my race season to support my big target event. The trail race at the start of this month was a great test of my running legs. Next up is a 5km swimming race. I’m not worried about going the distance, even though this will be the furthest I’ve swum for many years. Rather, I’m keen to feel strong and fast! Although it will be warmer ‘down south’ in Salford Quays, a bit of speed won’t go astray in helping me stay toasty 😀 .

Getting ready for our first Scottish dip

Getting ready for our first Scottish dip

It’s also been a bit of a whirlwind organising a ‘practice’ swimrun event under race conditions. With a last minute change of plans, we’re heading out to do Borås swimrun (near Gothenburg, Sweden) in less than three weeks’ time (gulp). It’s an event that’s about a ‘half distance’ Ötillö, but with more transitions per km and significantly more ascent on the run. This is focussing our minds nicely! Meanwhile I just need to learn how to pronounce Swedish words. “Er-Till-Er” ? “Bor-oarse” ?

Keep an eye out for more progress reports. You’ll be able to read about how we’re getting on here, at 220triathlon.com and sleepmonsters.com. And if you’re doing a similar event and want top tips, look out for our advice articles for Loch Gu Loch entrants. This will be a great swimrun event based around Loch Ness on 26th Sep. We plan to be there too, assuming we’ve survived the Swedish version! We’re learning as we go along and are more than happy to share what we find out.

Many thanks to our sponsors and supporters: Head Swimming, Beet IT and Chia Charge.

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