The Unexpected Discovery
I’m a 50-year-old guy who has been in love with outdoor sports ever since I was a little boy. There’s always been a sport dominating each stage of my life and personal circumstances: rock climbing, mountain biking, scuba diving, hang gliding, kayaking and triathlons. I’ve been extremely lucky to be able to experience a wide range of outdoor actives in remote and exciting locations all over the world. So, it’s quite ironic that I discovered my latest passion in a Hello magazine, of all places! I was bored to death in a doctor’s waiting room when the magazine I picked up at random happened to cover Pippa Middleton’s Ötillö. Even though I didn’t fully grasp the whole deal about the swimrun format I was duly attracted to the concept. I didn’t pursue it immediately because I thought it was a one-off Swedish event but I did make a note to self: keep an eye on it…
I love open water swimming and I had wanted to visit the Isles of Scilly for a long time. So, when a friend mentioned a charity Scilly Swim Challenge I thought I had finally found the excuse to go there. My initial intention was to do some cool swims combined with a little sightseeing – nothing major. However, when I got home and googled the event I was surprised to stumble across the Isles of Scilly Ötillö. I had no idea that swimruns took place in the UK but I immediately knew I *had* to do it!
Taking up the Challenge
I began reading in more detail what a swimrun entails and I must admit I was quite intimidated by the magnitude of the challenge. It was obvious that proper preparation and training was required to have a shot at completing the event. So, if I was going to commit all that time to prepare for one swimrun I might as well do two. I looked for others and there was an event that immediately caught my eye: the Breca Gower. I knew the area is stunning for coastal walks, so how cool would be running and swimming the entire Gower peninsula. I was sold!
One of the things I like the most of about swimrun is that it’s a team sport. Experiencing an endurance race across ever-changing wild terrain creates a priceless camaraderie. And in an event where one pushes to the limit it helps to have a mate close by when the going gets tough.
I’m lucky to have a great friend, Jerry, who complements my weakness and strengths very well. We signed up for the Isles of Scilly Ötillö and we immediately got on with the empirical training needed to learn something new from scratch. We’re fortunate to live close to Frensham Ponds in Surrey, which provides the perfect setting for training with a mixture of rolling hills, moorland, wooded areas, two ponds and plenty of trails to run all over it. The Solent is also nearby to play with currents and tides.
We went through the typical learning curve: attempted to run with our triathlon wetsuits (nope!), tried different shoes and socks, drilled holes in our pool buoys and tested a few hand paddles. It was a fun process which provided plenty of amusement to the locals walking their dogs.
We loved the freedom given by the amphibious nature of swimrun, which allows trying new routes without worrying about getting wet, caked in sand and/or covered in mud. 6:00am Sunday morning and is raining? It doesn’t matter! You just go and have fun no matter what.
The only issue was that Jerry could not get the time off for the Breca Gower and I struggled to find a partner. I was adamant to do the Gower so I eventually teamed with a guy who had signed up for the Breca Loch Gu Loch and was already training for it with his brother. We agreed to do a couple training sessions together just before the Gower’s date…
Losing the Swimrun Virginity
The Scilly race exceeded our expectations. Besides the obvious fun, striking scenery and tough physical challenge, I was surprised by the swimrun community and the unusual large amount of really nice people we met. We felt totally welcome despite being complete newbies.
The Isles of Scilly were kind to us. Indeed, we couldn’t have more benign conditions to do our first swimrun: sunny, warm, no-wind and favourable currents. The challenge was limited only to the sheer distance of the route.
The day after the Ötillö we managed to squeeze in a superb kayaking tour of the islands, during which we retraced some of the race route and explored new places. The Isles of Scilly are one of Britain's best kept secrets.
The Breca Gower
After the amazing Scilly Ötillö experience I had very high expectations for the Breca Gower. And boy, it did not disappoint me! I’d say is the most unforgettable epic race I’ve ever done: challenging, tough but stunningly beautiful and fun. The terrain was incredibly varied and Mother Nature made sure each kilometre covered was genuinely hard-earned.
The first swim leg led to the iconic Worm’s Head, a tidal island at the most westerly edge of Gower. Given the name “Wurm” (dragon) by the Vikings, it’s a headland packed with amazing rock formations, blowholes and even a rock bridge. Competitors can be seen forming a bottleneck on the craggy landing before continuing running towards the “Dragon Head”
The race was timed to coincide with low tide to allow “running” across the rocky causeway that emerges from the sea to connect the headland with the mainland. The Devil's Bridge can be seen in the background halfway down the ridge being approached by teams negotiating the jagged terrain.
The Worm’s Head spectacular Devil’s Bridge. Needless to say it was super cool to cross it during the race.
Girl power! There were lots of very strong, kick-ass women racing. Teams are made up of 3 categories: women, men and mixed pairs. Breca actively encourages women to compete on equal terms with men. They do and many perform better than the great majority of the participating men. This photo also shows what “running” looks like at the Worm’s Head causeway.
Some sections were quite steep and narrow but the views of the coastline were incredible…
My teammate and I ready to tackle the waves in the aptly named Tears Point.
Exiting the water at Oxwich Bay beach...
You never got bored with everything the rugged coastline threw at you…
A team ready to leave the beach at Great Tor and face one of the race’s toughest swimming sections involving massive swirling swells
Yours truly glad to reach dry land after completing the dreadful Great Tor to Three Cliffs Bay swim – despite the hairy rocky landing!
Double joy: elated for making the race’s last cut-off time and for surviving another nefarious swim leg! Caswell Bay
Dabbing to celebrate the increasing likelihood that we were going to complete the race.
Another guy celebrating he's going to finish the race by entering the water in style at the beginning of the Langland Bay swim, which happily was well-sheltered and infinitely easier than the previous ones.
The last swim at Bracelet Bay was a great way to complete a truly epic and tough race. Despite being very short – only 200Mts – it ended abruptly at a rock face. Once on top of the ridge competitors were finally given their first glimpse of Mumbles Pier, the race’s finish line.
The Breca Gower wasn’t going to end without one last struggle: exhausted competitors were forced to descent a tricky and quite vertical rock face down to the last 60Mts leading to the finish line!
Kevin, his son and I celebrating at Mumbles Pier. Against all odds we both managed to overtake a few teams and complete the course. We were lucky because 36% of the teams did not finish the race.
Euphoric to have completed the Breca Gower!
The Happy Ending
I’m now truly hooked on Swimruns and I can’t wait to do the races Jerry and I have signed up for 2018: the Breca Buttermere and the Ötillö Engadin. And we have many more swimruns in the wish-list pipeline.
I also find myself doing the occasional ‘out of season’ swimrun training just for the fun of it – particularly on rainy days. If you see a guy running with a dripping wetsuit in Frensham Ponds you know it’s me.
The main lesson learned is to make sure your teammate is well matched to your abilities and is able to train regularly with you well before the race.