You’ve seen the pictures, watched the videos, read the results in awe. Now it’s time to get into the mind of a Breca Jersey competitor. Dave Shiels raced the 53km course with Brian Corcoran as team ‘WVTri’.
Grab yourself a cup of tea, settle down and get stuck into Dave’s race report…
Gustav Mahler, in his majestic symphony number three wrote about the brutality and wonder of nature. You should listen to it. It’s rather quite good. In England, we think of nature as kind and maternal. We even give it a name: ‘Mother Nature’. It is beautiful and benevolent. In Germany they don’t think of it like that. They think of mother nature as something to be feared. Something to be respected. These are lessons that I have learned over the last few days when Brian Corcoran and I took part in the Breca Jersey Swim Run. We learned many other things.
Lesson number 1. The planes flying into Jersey are very small. This means that your luggage needs to be small. If it doesn’t fit in the suit-case sizing box of taxation, then a thirty five pound penalty, each way, to put your luggage in the hold will soon teach this lesson. Thankfully, neither I or Brian fell foul of this.
Lesson number 2. The island is relatively expensive for accommodation. The hotel we stayed at, though perfectly adequate, bore witness to this. Don’t let this put you off though. A night in a phoenix night type accommodation will soon lift the spirits.
Lesson number 3. We arrived early evening and had time for a quick run. Exuberance is best tempered and saved for race day but the beckoning call of the beguiling coast led us to run for too long and too hard along an exciting scrambling coast rock course. Along with a few drinks later in the evening we were riding the train of naivety, said Thomas.
Lesson 4: For the meagre sum of £35 we hired a Fiat 500. For another £32 we could crash it with impunity and for another £13 we could fuel our reconnaissance mission. Sound tracked by Brian’s playlist of Yacht rock, we surveyed the entry and exit points of the eight swims. Judging by the plentiful sight of Garmin watches, I suspect we were not the only ones. Spurred on by a huge slice of cake from the aptly named ‘hungry man’ cafe, we spent a great deal of the day driving round the small island. Despite the games that Brian invented, the thought still lingered that if it took this long to drive round. How long would it take to run and swim? Luckily, we broke up the day with a trip to the ‘Amazing Sand Sculpture Dome’. I could tell you all about it but somethings are best experienced by the fortuitous Three Princes of Serendip. We also sang Sea Shanties.
At check in, the mental game is a glimpse into the soul for forthcoming event. I think there is a feeling that everybody has. Even the supremely confident. That feeling that everybody looks fitter, everybody looks faster. Everybody looks younger. They maybe all of these things and they may not. It doesn’t really matter whether they are but what I've found is that the more events you do, the less impact this has. The best thing I’ve found is to listen to a syncopated rhythm in your head, a song with a swagger, and walk to the beat. Nothing can destroy you then, not even the OnCloud girl who was more like a beauty queen from a movie scene.
We signed in. Showed our kit, and picked up our swim caps, and bibs. The bib was a nice fetching, tight little crop top. I don’t know if they came in different sizes, but mine fitted snug. We made our way into a room where weddings are celebrated, where soulless conferences are held for our mandatory briefing. We sat at the front. People don’t like sitting at the front, they like anonymity but where information could be the difference between life and death, I like to receive it first-hand. Plus, if there were cheerleaders, I'd literally get a front row view. I knew there wouldn’t be though. Despite the vague promise of flag bearing American sensationalism, the small details such as wonky skirting velcroed to the stage suggested otherwise. It’s the small things Breca, the small things. I was, however, impressed with the briefing. The owner of Breca opened with a history and future of the organisation. I was tempted enough to consider investing in it when the opportunity arises. I think it will be a big worldwide success. They have grand ideas and it is only the minor details that might hold them back.
We also learned that this event would be franchised to a local organisation to manage for the day. They might like to work closer with their partners though, as without local knowledge provided by passers-by or fellow runners, we would have more than likely taken wrong turns.
The briefing was the right length and had the right content.
Lesson 5: Despite waking up in the early hours and pre-organising a continental breakfast at our hotel, all of the lights in the breakfast room were off. There was also the jackhammering sound of a snoring, fully clothed night porter in the restaurant conservatory. We didn’t wake him. I’m glad we had a backup plan of instant porridge. It perhaps wasn’t enough though. We did have Eccles cakes as well but an event like this needs more calories at the star. I was also treated to a lovely little song by Brian about Eccles cakes. I can’t remember the words though they did make me laugh. Better back up plans are needed next time
Our hotel was within 5 minutes of the coaches laid on by Breca to transport our skin like vessels of eagerness to the start at the Castle in Gower where there were public facilities for us to relinquish our bodies of our fight or flight symptoms. If popularity is a measure of success, then these facilities were triumphant.
I always like to warm up. It seems odd to do so for an event like this, but as long as it’s not too long, it’s vital.
There were smiles all around. The look of fear and happiness are very rarely mistaken, but here they seemed to be ubiquitous. A compere was adding to the atmosphere, the lyrical charm of the Irish also helps.
What shoes are they wearing? What wetsuit? What water bottles. Where will we finish? Will we finish? I’ve never really contemplated the latter question before. I was doing now. Forty seven kilometres of running over an elevation of seventeen hundred meters and six and a half kilometres of swimming is enough to focus the mind. I have never swum that distance before, and have only run fifty kilometres on the flat once too. Today would be tough.
There were two races on at the same time. A sprint at a mere 14.2km of running and 4.6km of swimming. and the full. Both started at the same time. This caused confusion throughout the race, never really knowing where we sat in the field. It helped, partially, having the bib numbers of the full competitors with two digits and those in the sprint with three but pacing could have been difficult to the inexperienced.
Despite all this I still felt confident. I didn’t. I did. I don’t think you ever do. If I’m tempted back again next year, I still wouldn’t be but i would certainly be better prepared.
At the start we couldn’t hear the compere. I hoped that nothing he was sharing was vital, but it could have been. The little differences between great and awesome. The difference between worldwide success and a momentary glimpse of glory. For all I know, he could have been telling us that the rules had changed and we were to collect Seven different flowers of different genomes from seven different coastline bays. I secretly hoped that we were supposed to. Don’t tell Brian but I collected three without his knowledge. I can’t tell you when or where, but let's just say that the passage of time with nature’s gentle hand may have helped.
Now we are finally on the subject of nature. You might want to listen to the marching, foreboding introduction of Kräftig. Entschieden of Symphony No. 3 at this point.
After an easy downhill road and a flattish trail route, we descended to calm waters. The water was luxurious. It was calm when we got out but the weather had begun to turn as darkness descended though at this point my spirits were still high.
After a short-ish run, we swam for fifteen hundred meters. Nature is to be feared and respected. With an army of kayaks and ribs to protect us we swam, oscillating between irregular sinusoidal waves of destruction, fighting to fling our arms above each tormenting humiliating laugh of the ocean. There was no bilateral breathing. But there were glimpses, every breath, of the mesmerising beauty of the coastal cliffs. My god, isn’t life amazing.
I could tell you about each bay, how at each turn another zoetropic life changing view but that, although the truth, isn’t the story here. The story is adversity. Three stories in one day. Eagerness; Fear; and Acceptance. We have already had the appetiser of eagerness.
After three hours of wonder and bewilderment, fear began to take hold. Despite running within myself, we were frogs being cooked on the path of eagerness to acceptance. I suspect you don’t know how you cook a frog but you don’t put a live frog in hot water. It will simply jump out. Instead you put it in cold water and slowly turn up the heat until it can’t jump out due to tiredness and apathy. I don’t like cruelty to animals but at least we were doing this voluntarily.
Acceptance that to finish the event, eight hours and seventeen minutes is a long time. Acceptance that when there is nothing left to give that there are still three hours to go. Acceptance of one step. One step at a time. Another. Another. longing for the swim and its mutual feelings of reciprocation.
The Full course was one for runners. The Sprint and the Full were mostly separated by a long 10km section followed by a further 20km section of running in the midday sun along the sapping silicon fines of a surfer’s paradise was amongst the low points. That, and forgetting my paddles at a feed station. At least Brian didn’t have to run too far to go back and get them. I am very driven and determined and have a cool hand Luke about myself but begging Brian to stop for twenty second walks every now and again must have been as annoying to him as it was humiliating to me. I also learned that over such a long time and distance, energy comes in surges like the crescendoing waves of Langsam—Ruhevoll—Empfunden.
There is a time in the final section of Mahler’s symphony no. 3 where the swelling of the strings creates beauty beyond imagination but our penultimate swim of a thousand meters was as good as anything I have ever experienced in my short forty six years. Despite another 3km of running and four hundred meters of swimming to come, I knew that life simply doesn’t get any better than this. There would be no tears at the end today. Only Joy. I could see the whole of life through the water’s magnifying glory. We knew we wouldn’t be caught by the people behind, although that didn’t really matter. We knew we wouldn’t catch the couple in front and neither did that. We could enjoy it for what it was. Ironically. I also swam a lot faster than I had all day. From the enveloping womb of the sea, the cliffs looked like they had been created from the solidified tears of mermaids thrown to the shore as they warned the descendants of apes of the dangers of the sea.
The unyielding final four hundred meter climb to the finish symbolised the struggle of the day. Where we were treated like princes amongst men. Being interviewed at the finish by the Breca compere was a nice touch. It helped it that it was sunny, but being on holiday meant that most people hung around for the buffet and the obligatory beer.
I’ll finish on a couple of notes…
Firstly, the crop top. It’s a shame I didn’t get to keep it but I did swap it for a rather natty finishers T-shirt.
Secondly there were two thoughts that got me through the day. The first comes from Lucy Gossage. She told me ‘it is a privilege to be able to put ourselves through such pain’ and the second from Scott Jurek ‘Though man’s soul finds solace in natural beauty, it is forged in the fire of pain’. I wish I had written that
Thirdly. They say that a good swim run team should have a slightly better swimmer in the team and a slightly better runner in the team. It was unfortunate that we were unbalanced in this respect. We had a much better swimmer and a much better runner. I felt sorry for Brian that had the burden of both of these people. I don’t think he left zone 2 all day.
On a final note, perhaps the best bit was the plane journey home. Taking off in a propeller powered plane, looking down over a toy landscape and thinking, ‘We did that bit’, ‘that bit is where i lost my sense of humour’, ‘that’s the beach with the non-blow up inflatable generic gulls’. ‘That’s the beach i never want to see again’, with a sense of pride and knowing I’d be back to beat this year’s time.
I lied. The best bit was the team spirit. Swimrun is a team sport. I’ve only ever done a solo event before and I now know it most definitely should be a team event and genuinely I couldn’t have wished for a more inspirational partner. He’s also promised to look after my dog when I go away which is nice. I don’t feel so guilty for letting him win at pool or crazy golf now.
I lied again. I eat a lot and I’m hungry now as I write this. This reminds me that I wish the feed stations could have been more plentiful and had more digestible sustenance too. Gels and sugary based products are great but are no substitute for pork pies or humous and crisps. With it being a hot day, I also learned that collapsible cups are great but I should have taken a water bottle. It would have bridged the gaps between the stations. Oh well.