Well that was a lot of fun. This was the first example in New Zealand of a Scandinavian long distance swimrun race – alternating sections swimming and running without stopping. You swim in your shoes and run in your wetsuit. More adventure racing than triathlon.
The sheer novelty of the format has been great – reminds me of the very early days of triathlon when equipment wasn’t commercially available and we experimented, trying things out to see how well they work.
It’s a lot easier these days with the Internet. Swimrun was born in Sweden where a couple of mates had a race across the Stockholm archipelago (chain of islands). It’s a huge sport there now and is spreading across northern Europe with races from Scotland to Spain. I even found a couple in the USA.
The largest races in Sweden have around 2000 competitors and there is a number of specialist swimrun suppliers who sell specific gear for the sport.
So you run in your wetsuit and swim in your shoes. There’s a triathlon saying, “never race with something you haven’t trained with before” – it’s true here too but there’s rather more to try out.
To start with I made my own wetsuit out of an old triathlon one – cutting it above the knees and elbows to make it easier to run in. It worked pretty well but it is, let’s face it, made of rubber so got pretty squeaky running 5 mins after a swim once the surface had dried out.
I bought myself a “made for Swimrun” model from Sweden as a birthday present to myself. This was quite a revelation: it unzips at the front so you can cool off when running. It has detachable arms, which you can roll down when hot, but pull up for the swims. The fabric in the hips is extra flexible to make it easier to run in but - most genius of all – there’s thin neoprene between your thighs not rubber. Much less squeaky. There’s even a cute little pocket on the calf you can put gels in. Handy.
Pull buoy and paddles
Swimming in your shoes makes transitions very quick when you’re doing a lot of them but they cause a phenomenal amount of drag. The solution to this is to strap a pull buoy to your thigh when running and pull it between your legs when swimming to keep your feet up. Elite triathletes Braden Currie and Courtenay Atkinson who won the Breca Sprint race today had an interesting variant – buoyancy aids in their socks! Even the pull buoy thing took a bit of practice – the internet had 101 ways of attaching them to your leg and I discovered my trusty pool pullbuoy was too wide when wearing a wetsuit so I had to get a narrower one for the race.
Then there’s propulsion. You wear hand paddles to battle the shoe drag. This is awesome but hard work. Some people have paddles the size of dinner plates. In training I found the effort of pulling so much more water over big distances very hard on the shoulders. Not something to try over 8k in the water on race day without trying it beforehand.
You write the course on the paddles so you know what’s coming up and whether it’s worth adjusting your gear.
Even with all this paraphernalia, I reckon I’m 30% slower in full swimrun regalia than just a wetsuit with bare hands and feet. Drag is the enemy in the water.
The other nice twist to swimrun is that you race in pairs. This is primarily for safety as you get to some pretty remote places but it’s very sociable compared to the silent intensity of triathlon.
As it’s about the team, you can use each other as well as all this weird equipment and in Europe almost all the teams tether themselves together with a bungee. It’s quite odd the first few times you try it out but makes enormous sense – levels up the effort so the faster can help the slower in both swim and run and you both finish quicker.
Matt’s a much stronger runner than me so our plan was for him to lead the runs and to alternate the swims just to share the load on shoulders.
Obviously you need to be able to run 42k off-road and swim 8k in open water over multiple stages. This is like preparing for a triathlon – build the strength endurance, simulate the terrain and do the work.
With all this novel equipment though, simulation and technique seemed just as, if not more, important in preparation. We’ve had a heap of fun over the summer getting ready. Our 3-week summer holiday in Wanaka introduced us to entirely new places as we recced course legs. Back in Wellington we’ve had very strange looks from the locals as we practiced tethering in the harbour (strange enough to passers by) and then up around the hills in Mount Victoria (incomprehensible).
Thanks to the others who made all this such a fun project – we’ve had a lot more laughs than getting ready for any triathlon I can remember and I’ve discovered some wonderful places off the Wellington coast that I’ve not been to before in my 19 years here.
2 pages in and we’re not even at the start line. Notionally it was 42k running and 8k swimming. They were quite generous with the run quantities.
Wanaka is a fantastic location for such an iconic event – the first race of this kind in NZ. It’s also where I did my first Iron-distance triathlon (Challenge Wanaka) in January 2008. We go on holiday here most summers so I can’t think of a friendlier location to get going in.
The course is a giant loop around the southern third of the lake starting at the Clutha inlet and finishing at the Edgewater hotel on the western side of Roy’s Bay.
Another equipment discovery was that the amazing Garmin 920 watch can’t cope with swimrun, as it’s limited to 5 stages in a multisport race. We had 22 so I created a special “Swimrun” mode run-swim-run-swim that ends as you leave a water stage so you can start a new one on the next run leg. This creates quite a good structure for a race report.
The “Outlet track” at the start of the River Clutha is pretty at the best of times – the Challenge Wanaka run heads down it in the opposite direction but we had the joy of autumn colours – lovely poplars and willows (all introduced species that the purists despise) in gold and russet.
The first swim is a ferry-glide across the river. When I did it in January the current was quite strong and you have a very odd sensation of being swept wildly downstream watching the bottom of the river flash in front of your eyes while sighting the swim exit across the water. The water was much slower this time and we were all very fresh …
Over the hill in Dublin Bay, the lake was very low and given how shallow the bay is, we had to wade quite a long way out before it was deep enough for swimming. Much nicer than January with 10001 speedboats and water-skiers carving up the shallows.
From Dublin Bay northwards is private land – in all our time holidaying and exploring the area, I’d never been up here. Working farms and empty beaches. The first island hop of the race – to Stevenson’s Island – a bird sanctuary at the top of the peninsular inlet.
The next 4 stages took more than half of our total race time.
We’d been jogging along with a group of 4 other teams for most of the race to this point. “It’s much more sociable than a triathlon” observed my partner Matt. Coming ashore from Stevenson’s island on the west side of the inlet we climbed up to a balcony track with views over the portage at the north end and back down over the island to Dublin Bay. I’ve never been anywhere near here before and we got there unaided wearing wetsuits. What a wonderful sport.
The next stage was the crux swim of 2½ k (straight line – further if you followed our banana-line). This was the one leg where we tried to be strategic. Euro swimrunners never take their shoes off for anything less than a 1.5k swim as it’s such a faff but they create so much resistance it’s not a bad idea for such a long leg if you can get them off and on quickly. We’d practiced this and shoving the shoes down the back of our wetsuits. “Ah – hunchbacks!” one of the other teams announced as we left the swim start.
It worked pretty well – the teams who’d been with us when we got to the water seemed miles away by the time we got inbut we caught them quickly and were a long way clear of them by the time we got to the other side. It was my first leg leading and even with my gung ho enthusiasm to make as much ground (water?) as possible we were pretty chilly with jelly legs when we made shore and there was a lot of rolling around on the ground like upended crabs rather than the gazelle-style exits that we had planned. Still, you don’t do this stuff to look cool, right?
After the crux swim leg was the crux run – a very long 14k with 2 aid stations and the start of the sprint race all within it. I was pretty glad of the tether half way through when the buses full of sprint competitors rolled past and everyone saw just how taut the bungee was. Cheers Matt.
The long run ended on Buchanan’s Rise – another private area that I’ve never been to – with a luxury lodge and views to die for but also a short cut from the West Wanaka Road across the mouth of Glendhu Bay to the Millennium Track back to Wanaka. It cuts about 10k off the public access road that follows the edge of the bay. Very much in the swimrun philosophy.
Hitting the Millennium Track felt a bit like coming home – it’s a popular track for running and biking from Wanaka but we still had 10k of hills and nearly 2½ k of swimming to go.
Jelly legs were more like blancmange exiting the Dublin Bay swim and it took a good 10 mins to get going with any form of grace. We weren’t that balletic but at least we were running.
There was a lovely gratuitous swim about half way along the track over Damper Bay – I’ve run and cycled past here dozens of times but never hopped in for a swim. Too good.
Jelly legs continued to the Ruby Island swim start. All fine until we tried to get out of the swim with cramp, muscle spasms, general indignity and much laughter. Once upright we managed to walk to the other end of the island, breaking into a lethargic jog for about 15m.
Return swim was fine if starting to get rather tiring – who knew? 700m run to the finish without too much jelly but not too much style either.
B-effect craft beer at the finish line, sunshine and friends on the lawn at Edgewater. That was pretty good too.
This is the most fun I’ve had with a new project in ages. I was getting a bit stale doing the same old thing every year and not having enough time to get any better. The fun of mini-adventures – swimming in nature reserves 5k from home and secret bays I run past every year on holiday has been life-enhancing but best of all it’s been great fun with the rest of the community in Wellington and around the country.
Particular thanks to Matt for being a very patient partner and all the Wellington crew who made training and racing such fun.
Shout out to Mandy and Callum for encouraging me throughout. Callum almost froze solid when we did a trial run of the long swim in January. Mandy’s now such a pro that she’s joining me at Swimrun Australia in March
Thanks to Braden Currie and Miles Holden for the photos of his race – I didn’t get many of ours! https://www.redbull.com/nz-en/currie-atkinson-dominate-wanaka-sprint
Join the movement at www.facebook.com/groups/nzswimrun