I love triathlon, but having focused a bit more on the swim and run aspects recently, when word started to spread about SwimRun, pioneered by the Ötillö (Island to Island) race in Sweden, it sounded like I ought to give it a go.
I started doing a bit of online research, and was surprised to discover it was pretty different to the rather tame ‘aquathlon’ style events I’d come across before. For SwimRun, you run in your wetsuit, you swim in your shoes, and most weirdly, you are allowed (and therefore effectively required) to use swim-aids (paddles and a pullbuoy). So, a certain amount of kit is required – either adapting and butchering an old wetsuit, or picking up one of the new generation of suits designed specifically for SwimRun.
LoveSwimRun Llanberis looked like a fun option – at the shorter end of the Swim Run spectrum in terms of overall distance, but with a decent amount of swimming (4k), and nice big hill to run up. It was being sponsored by Zone3 wetsuits, and I bit the bullet and sprang for one of their new Evolution SwimRun wetsuits. Since it’s a brand new product, it was a bit touch-and-go getting hold of the suit in time for the event – it arrived with just a couple of weeks to go, but at the event it seemed like half the competitors were wearing them, so it seems to be off to a good start!
I also took advantage of the Icebug promo that LoveSwimRun were running, with 20% off their Swimrun specific shoes. The idea of the shoes is (a) they have great grip for running on slippy wet rocky surfaces (b) they are made from non-absorbent material, so don’t become heavy and waterlogged following your swim.
Testing out kit thoroughly in advance is highly recommended. I wasn’t sure how the lido would react to the idea of swimming with shoes on, so instead I headed down to the West Reservoir in Stoke Newington.
So what did I learn? Well, when I finally managed to beg/borrow/steal some elastic, my pullbuoy and paddle set up worked well. I ended, somewhat ridiculously, trying first my existing Speedo Biofuse paddles (too big), the some Speedo finger paddles (too small), before finally settling, Goldilocks-like, for some medium-sized Speedo tech paddles (just right). For individual competitors, it was compulsory to swim with a tow-float – given this was just a mini-swimrun, I decided to go for the most minimal of the many options available, and just needed to find a carabiner so I could attach it to the belt for running.
Swimming in shoes was surprisingly not too much of a problem – especially with a pullbuoy (and wetsuit) to avoid sinking legs, but the non-absorbent tarpaulin-like fabric of the Icebergs proved to be something of a mixed blessing. It took a surprising distance of squelchy running before the shoes finally managed rid themselves of the water they had scooped up, and even drilling extra drainage holes, as advised, didn’t seem to help that much!
As for the Zone3 suit, it’s definitely the business – the front zip is the really key thing, giving you the ability to regulate heat when running. In a longer event, or on a superheat day, it may be necessary to ‘cab-down’ entirely, but for an 8k run it was fine just unzipping it at the front which gave really good ventilation. (That’s the main challenge if you take the ‘chop up an old wetsuit’ approach.) Having a decent size pocket in the back helped too. Good for the mandatory whistle and bandage, and would also be good for gels, though in a short race with plenty of on course nutrition, there wasn’t any need.
So, having kitted myself up, I headed up to Llanberis (via train and bus) on Friday, ready for a relatively civilised 9am registration, 10am start on the Saturday morning.
The race is described as 4 swims and 4 runs, but in practice it is 3 major swims (1.2k, 1.2k and 1.8k) and 2 runs (8.3k and 2.6k), with the remainder being little sprints and dips. That meant that, unusually for this sort of event, you actually spent as much time swimming as running (a bit like Isoman), which was fine by me…
The solo competitors got a 5 minute head start on the pairs (which made it feel a bit like a hare-and-hounds situation, as you couldn’t be sure if a super-fast pair wasn’t chasing you down). At 10am, the hooter sounded and the 45-strong solo field (29 men and 16 women) charged down the road and along the jetty to the start of Swim 1 (1.2K along to the end of Lake Padarn).
With such a small field, immediately you get a chance to start sizing up the opposition. The running pace seemed manageable, I didn’t have to work too hard to get into second place, but the guy who entered the water first seemed keen – was he going to keep that up? And now, as we jumped off the end of the jetty, we were about to find out how everyone’s swimming stacked up.
As can be seen in the event video, I didn’t exactly make a glorious start on the swim – I couldn’t decide between diving in or jumping in (we were told either was allowed), so I did something halfway inbetween, which caused me to lose my pullbuoy and swallow/inhale a surprising amount of water. After a moment of coughing and spluttering, I was on my way, hanging onto the feet (not literally) of the 2 guys who were leading the way. There pace seemed decent but manageable, and after draughting for the first 800m or so I decided to see if I could get past. This was a partial success – my opposition immediately started hanging off *my* feet, but hey, I was in the lead – just about!
So, by this point, things seemed modestly promising. I was able to hold my own on the swim, and generally I’m more of an endurance than a speed person, so I was looking forward to building on that in swims 2 and 3. But first there was the run to worry about – specifically by far the most significant run of the event was coming up – 8k, featuring a set of switchback paths to the slate quarry – an altitude gain of 200m in about 1.8k, so a sustained 10%+ gradient. I know that now, but actually, going into the event I hadn’t done my homework on the run cours. I just knew that at some point there was probably going to be hill!
The run got off to a good start – not knowing quite how to pace an event like this, I guess I was roughly aiming for half-marathon pace (or effort, anyway), and I seemed to be starting to put a little distance between myself and the chasing pack as we ran along the flat. As we then started up the hill to the quarry, I pushed hard, worried by the sense you always get when you hit the hill first that the pursuers are closing in on you. It was a nice big path, so no chance of getting lost on the way up, but the switchbacks seemed to go on forever.The same run forms part of the Slateman triathlon, and it seems a local favourite. My time for the ascent puts me a not especially impressive 51/938 on that segment on Strava (but now I think about it, I suspect most of the others weren’t wearing a wetsuit at the time!).
At the top of the run, looking back, I couldn’t see anyone, so that seemed like a good sign. On the other hand, I also couldn’t see any marshals or any signs, and suddenly it dawned on my that being (for the first time in my life) in the overall lead of a race had a downside: I was going to need to navigate – never my strength. In fact, having determined that the other participants in the event didn’t seem to be big fans of running up hills, I had a strong realisation that my major issue at this point was going to be to avoid getting lost.
There were a few bits of stripey tape marking off hazards which I took as a good sign that I was probably still on route, but it wasn’t entirely clear which way the route led. I was pleased to finally see an arrow on a gate, and I sprinted through, confident that I finally I was definitely on route, only to come to a T-junction. “Help! Which way???” I shouted (not very usefully) to myself. I stood around for a bit, and for a while thought I was going to have to wait for everyone else to catch up and ask them. But finally my brain kicked in and I thought “Gate! Arrow!”, and I ran back to check the gate, and indeed, the arrow looked like it pointed left. A little bit more berating myself out loud “Doh! Pay attention!”, and then I was off again – downhill, to the first feed station with some cheery volunteers, where I grabbed a fistful of banana (about half of which actually went into my mouth) and sprinted off down through the woods, through a kind of stately home, over a arched bridge, and down to the lake, for Swim 2.
With no sign of the other competitors, I figured I’d managed to build up at least a couple of minutes buffer and I was able to set off on Swim 2 without being under too much pressure, and even the navigation (out to a buoy on the far side of the lack, and then back to our starting point) wasn’t too challenging.
Run 2 (at only 2.4 K), included a nutrition stop which seemed like overkill, really, but I grabbed a mouthful of extremely flakey flapjack as it looked tasty, and immediately regretted it as I spent the next 500m trying to run without choking on inhaled flapjack. Still, I was soon embarking on the longest swim of the day (1.8K). Just needed to get that out of the way, then a hop, skip and a jump would see me to the finish line. At least, that was the theory….
The first half was fine -I swam along the lakeside, accompanied(ish) by a kayaker 100m or so away. I passed the optional gel station on a promontory where you could optionally leave the water if y0u needed calories or just a bit of moral support, and then reached the “big grey building” on shore that the marshals had told me to watch out for, as a turning point. So now it was just a matter of crossing the lake, and fortunately the big red Zone3 buoy at the the other side of the like was clearly visible – just another 800m or so to go, then. The kayaker seemed to have disappeared, but that wasn’t an immediate concern, so I ploughed on towards the buoy. As I got closer and close to the buoy I started to wonder slightly. It did seem to be in rather a strange place – kind of embedded in roots and willow branches at the waters edge. It wasn’t immediately obvious where I was going to get out of the water. No sign of any marshals either. This was odd. Anyway, got to the buoy, fought through the mangrove-swamp like undergrowth, and attempted to figure out where to go next. Headed left, in the broad direction of the finish line, but very unclear about where the last remaining 200m swim was meant to take place. Lots of people around, but no one who looked like a marshall or knew where I was meant to go. Eventually I saw the finish line, so ran up to race director Chloë and had to rather sheepishly ask “er, where am I meant to swim from?” Chloë pointed me in broadly the right direction so I ran back 200m, jumped back in the water, and approached the finish (again!), this time for real.
It turned out the buoy had drifted (possibly having been loosed from its anchor by children at the canoe school), and with the kayaker having presumably decided I must know I was going (ha!), I’d found myself in no man’s land. Anyway, all’s well that ends well – it turned out I still had a decent amount of time in hand (well, 11 minutes), and I was able to reclaim my £10 timing tag deposit and invest it in an excellent wood-fired pizza from the finish-line caterers, while watching the other competitors come in, singly and in pairs.
The weather gradually deteriorated over the next 2 hours, and by the time the final finishers came out of the water, it was pretty windy and tipping down with rain, and the space blankets were coming in handy. Despite the elements, nearly everyone stayed around for the prize giving (in the meantime working our way through a massive number of slightly soggy Haribo and more of the flapjack, which was much improved by being eaten while stationary).
Very happy with the final end result, picking up a glass trophy and a £50 voucher from sponsor Zone3, and also really impressed with the organization and logistics, especially considering it was the very first running of the event.
After everyone had dried off a bit, a good proportion of the field spent the rest of the afternoon in the pub in Llanberis sharing stories and tips for other events. Definitely a great example of a small event with a friendly vibe, and great value too (for example, all the event photography was included in the price – I wish more events did this!).
Having not quite had my fill of running for the weekend, the next day I decided to see what running up Snowdon would be like. Answer – some bits are quite steep, and unless you are some sort of monster they need to be aggressively stomped up rather than run, but it is quite good fun. The descent is tough though – the path is made out of razor sharp plates of slate, and I definitely established that the Icebug Zeals have their limitations – specifically, they don’t have any shank in the soul to protect your foot from rocks. I like the idea of giving the the annual July Snowdon Race a go at some point (or maybe even The Brutal iron-distance triathlon in Llanberis, which finishes with a run up and down Snowdon), but it definitely calls for (yet more) new kit, in the form of specific fell-running shoes (maybe these?).
All in all it was a great experience, and it won’t be my last swim run! Thanks to the all the volunteers and the organisers and sponsors for making it happen.
Also see the official race report from LoveSwimRun, and the official event video (below).
Looking to give SwimRun a go in 2017?
I highly recommend it! In fact maybe it’s time for an HTC SwimRun section. Anyway, here are a few events to consider:
LoveSwimRun Llanberis (June 24) There may be new LoveSwimRun events next year too…
Isles of Scilly Ötillö qualifier (HTC-er Francois Barou did the 2016 edition – from the drone video it looks amazing!)
Germany (1000 lakes) Ötillö qualifier
For more SwimRun and tri antics, follow me on Twitter: @mjcockerill