Swimrun comes to Ireland for the first time with Breca Árainn Mhór in Donegal.

Ben de Rivaz

For those not initiated in the swimrun mythos, the tale begins, as all good stories should, with a drinking competition in Sweden. Two teams challenged each other to run and swim 75km over 26 islands in the Stockholm archipelago. On one side were Anders Malm and Janne Lindberg, on the other, the Andersson brothers. The rules were simple: the last team had to drink and pay for the rounds at the bars lining the route.

From these beginnings a mass psychogenic illness has developed which has endurance athletes everywhere convinced that running in a wetsuit and swimming in trainers is a very good thing. The first incidence of swimrun in England was marked by Breca Buttermere, our inaugural event. “We had already expected some severe suffering”, said Fabian Aberhard of the German Sparkle Party, “but Breca beat that by some fair amount”. Encouraged by these kind words we began location scouting for the second race in the Breca series.

600km of sheet rain, floods, and closed roads later we found what we were looking for. We should have started small. We should have made it accessible. We should have gone somewhere close to a major city. Instead, we found the wildest corner of Ireland we could and created Breca Árainn Mhór, a 54km swimrun in Donegal comprising 45km of trails and 9km of Atlantic Ocean swims.

Cloughglass at low tide, The Rosses, Donegal

Foolhardy – yes. But what has been seen cannot be unseen, and we knew we had found an exceptional location for a swimrun.

The setting is remarkable. We saw seals sunning themselves on rocks and otters scampering away from us as we entered deserted bays. Dolphins, basking sharks and pilot whales are also drawn to the warm waters flowing off the Gulf Stream.

Árainn Mhór's west coast; spot the swim-runners

Rutland island; Duck Island and Árainn Mhór are in the background

Rutland island; Duck Island and Árainn Mhór are in the background

The island of Árainn Mhór itself is as far west as you can go; it is on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean with nothing between it and America. This is reflected in the topography of the outer islands – they are all sheer walls and hard edges. As you move east, the rocky slabs give way to the lower lying islands of the inner archipelago, an area known as The Rosses.

For swim-runners, these closely-set islands are exciting for two reasons. Firstly, they allow for quick transitions; secondly, the changing terrain means that each entry and exit is different – from technical rocky climbs, to beaches to walk out onto. Working with your teammate to overcome these obstacles is what makes the sport so enjoyable – it is the essence of swimrun.

Technical swimrun transition

Climbing back onto the trail at Cloughglass

Climbing back onto the trail at Cloughglass

Eighter island

The first iteration of the course was met by the locals with raised eyebrows. Not all the channels in The Rosses are swimmable: there are areas of strong currents and ships have foundered on hidden rocks. Worse still, our intended route would have taken teams straight over ‘the Black Hole’ – a depression in the channel running between the islands of Edernish, Rutland and Inishcoo. Changing tides cause water to rush over the depression resulting in a vortex that sucks the unwary into the abyss. We re-directed the route.

Eventually, we found a way to capture everything we wanted to, but in doing so created a monster. Breca Árainn Mhór is not for the faint-hearted. For some, the unknowns will be too great. It is the first swimrun in Irish history, and only the few will be able to take on the distances. But those few know that there are moments when you have to embrace uncertainty and simply go out to meet the Man with the Hammer. See you on the start line.

Still tempted? Sign up to Breca Árainn Mhór here: