Thursday, 7 July 2016

Breca Swim Run

A race that caught my eye last winter was the Breca Buttermere “Swimrun”. It had appeared on my Twitter feed accompanied by some incredible photographs of neoprene clad athletes running though the majestic summer landscapes of the Lake District, diving into crystal clear waters, bathed in summer sunshine.

It looked like an epic adventure. I was sold, quickly set about finding a suitable partner (Swimrun is raced as a pair) and sent off an entry.

Fast forward some 6 months and I found myself arriving in Buttermere to torrential rain and menacing grey skies. This wasn't what I signed up to! I really have been a one man weather hex this year!!

Where's the sunshine!

A few hours later my partner in crime arrived in the shape of Paul Lunn. Paul is an awesome Ironman athlete.... He's raced many Ironman competitions, but is yet to complete one in 10 hours...

But that's only because he's too busy completing them in 9 hours!

Yes, Paul's personal WORST Ironman performance is still comfortably under 10 hours. Safe to say, in terms of my race partner, I would not be found wanting.

I don't think Paul would mind me saying that our swimming ability is pretty similar, but at best described as “fair to average”. Our run speed though is half decent and also very closely matched, rarely separated by more than a handful of seconds in races. We would be losing our usual weapon of a strong bike leg, but this race was more about the adventure of it all, stepping out of our comfort zones and having a bit of fun. In short, I couldn't have hoped for a better partner.

We spent a leisurely afternoon in Buttermere before race day, dodging the downpours, getting our bearings and dealing with kit checks etc before an early supper and bed.

My sleep was somewhat fitful, due in part to the relentless pounding of the rain on the roof of the T5, but also because my mind was racing. This really was a step into the unknown for me. I would be running a total of 38 kilometes in the high fells and swimming 6 kilometers. Split over 17 different stages ranging from 400 meters to 12 kilometers taking in some 2000 meters of vertical accent.

And all the while trying not to get dropped by Lunny!

Race day dawned and nerves made way to excitement at the realisation that most of the 100 teams gathered at the YHA for the start were in the same boat... totally clueless about what lay ahead.

Everybody cut a comical dash in their aquatic attire. The race started with a run section, but here we all were, decked out with wetsuits in various states of modification, swimming aids, hats and goggles.

Everybody ready for the off

Not a clue!

There were of course a handful of experienced teams, both from the UK and overseas. They were easy to spot. Minimal kit, most using hand paddles the size of dinner plates (something novice Swimrunners would be ill advised to attempt). But also simple things like having selected the smallest possible number bib (and cutting away excess material) – clearly a little tip learned though experience and something I vowed to to do next time as I toed the line looking like an undernourished NBA player! I worried about how my number bib would affect my swimming as, frustratingly, this was not something I'd tested in training.

Paul and I had also opted for a fairly minimal approach. We were using Swimrun specific wetsuits (short arms and legs, front zipper, very flexible). We both had a pull buoy, strapped to our leg (pretty much de-rigueur among Swimrunners), medium sized hand paddles (upon which Paul had written all the section distances) and some gels stashed inside our suits. The remainder of our nutritional needs would be met by the 5 checkpoints around the course – a decision I'd later regret.

Pretty soon, the casual banter was broken by the sound of a starting horn and the assembled throng sprinted off in the direction of Buttermere lake. Paul and I had recce'd the opening run section, knew it featured a few gates and narrow paths, so opted for a strong start to avoid any log jams.

A strong start required

We arrived at the lake shore in about 2nd or 3rd place, quickly spun our pull buoys into position, donned goggles and dived it. We held our position for the opening 750m swim section. There was a little confusion as we exited the lake and we settled into 4th place for the next run.

Impatience soon got the better of us and we took back 3rd before our next swim, another 700m, this time in the choppier swell of Crummock Water.

And then came the first real test...

A 3.5 mile “run” leg featuring the 350m accent of the Rannerdale Knots. This was a cracker and we were quickly reduced to a “power walk” as running became futile. We could see the leading 2 teams also marching ahead and seemed to be making in-roads on 2nd. A brief search for direction arrows at the summit and a high speed decent back to Crummock completed this leg. It had taken us almost 40 minutes! But we had certainly moved up on 2nd place.

The drop off Rannerdale Knots

A quick re-fuel at Checkpoint 1 and we now had a long swim section of 1120m. The hand paddles and floats were working well, but not well enough to offset the drag from our tent like number bibs and soggy running shoes. This longer swim leg, took us right into the choppy swell in the middle of the lake, it was a real workout, taking almost 20 minutes. But I was loving it, leading the way and getting the occasional comforting “tap” from Paul on my feet to let me know he was still there.

2nd place had extended their lead so it was clear they were swim specialists. We dragged ourselves onto Crummock's western shore and gave chase. 2nd place were soon in our sights and, with over 8 miles to run on this section, it was only a matter of time before we'd have them.... or so we thought.

Another swim stage complete

We didn't spend much time at Checkpoint 2, keen to keep moving as best we could. A few miles later after a steep downhill section the trail directions (marked with “eco friendly” sawdust arrows) had completely dried up... We were at a T-Junction on a road, with no direction arrows.

This was not good.

We reached for our map to try and deduce where we were and where we'd gone wrong. It soon became clear we'd just have to retrace our steps to the last direction arrow, almost half a mile back UP the hill we'd just run down!! Aghhh!!

Reaching the top of the hill from the other direction, the turn we should have taken became clear. A small piece of bunting hidden in a bush! Though a gate and once again into a field with plenty of options but no direction arrows. We ambled around for a few minutes, with two more teams joining us in the search. Then, I spied the soggy remains of a sawdust arrow!! Ah ha!! This way Lunny!!

We were off and running once again, ruing our misfortune and envious at those teams with better course knowledge (or better eye sight) than us!

But how many places had we dropped? During this section, the sun made a brief appearance and our body temperatures quickly escalated. We removed our swim hats and ventilated our front zips. This leg also had it's fair share of climbing and Checkpoint 3 was a welcome sight with about 1.5 miles left to run. We were informed that we were the 5th team so refuelled quickly to complete the stage and begin our next swim.

There then followed a flurry of 3 shorter swims and 3 runs, accompanied by some proper Lake District rain. At times, during the swims, visibility was reduced as the rain lashed down. Crummock water was stirred up into a choppy swell which threw us around like corks.

These shorter legs epitomised the essence of Swimrun for me. Moving through incredible landscapes, transitioning from running to swimming with barely a pause for breath. Taking on whatever the environment could throw at us.... It was truly epic.

The last of these shorter runs bought us back through our Campsite in Buttermere to the cheers of Lunny's lads Ethan and Isaac. A long (1000m) swim bisecting Lake Buttermere West to East was next.

It was at this point that I felt my energy levels start to ebb. Having been happy leading out most of the swims so far I was now struggling to hold Lunny's pace. The hand paddles seemed to double my effort and the pull against my number bib was relentless. Thankfully the swim exit coincided with Checkpoint 4, and offered me the opportunity to gorge myself on Coke and jelly babies...

Lunny was feeling pretty cold at this point so we pressed on. Almost immediately I felt queasy. It transpires that switching repeatedly between vertical running and horizontal swimming does a pretty good job of churning the guts and moments later my stomach decided to empty itself.


I now had easily the toughest section of the entire day ahead and my energy levels were at rock bottom, with nothing in my system to raise the needle off empty.

I plodded on in a dizzy haze – running on fumes.

The climb from the Northern shore of Buttermere to Robinson was relentless. I think I now know what purgatory feels like. I'm not sure my lack of energy made a huge amount of difference. The extreme gradient reduced all teams to a death march on this section, frequently resorting to hands and knees, pulling at fence posts and tufts of grass to make continued upward progress. The climb took over 40 minutes.... and it's a shade over a mile long... It was crazy hard.

The "Robinson leg" overlayed onto a library image - we had no blue sky on race day!

Looking back to Buttermere below lifted my spirits. Pairs of little yellow dots could be made out crossing the water..

I'd been taking one some energy chews as we climbed and nearing the “top” I'd started to feel my energy return. At least one team had come past us on the climb, maybe two? My memory is a little hazy. But now I was running again.... Kinda.

From the top of Robinson, it doesn't exactly become plain sailing to the Honister Slate mine. We followed the ridge line against a block headwind and were constantly plunged into cuttings before tackling false summit after false summit. The final climb to Dale Head finally gave us views of the Slate mine and Honnister Pass beneath us, but he descent down was no picnic.

Steep, rocky and slippery it demanded complete focus. We'd caught and passed one team on Dale head so were keen to push on and maintain a gap. Lunny was throwing caution to the wind. My quads were now pretty battered and struggled to stay with the pace.

I passed a lone walker with his dog. “What's that you've got on your leg?” pointing to my pull buoy. “That's my float for when I'm swimming” I replied as I ran by.

“Swimming as well?”... “Sod that” I heard him say. He must have thought we were barmy... he probably had a point.

Lunny and I both took a few tumbles on this section before we finally arrived at the slate mine and the final Checkpoint. We stopped for a quick re-fuel and were joined by the team we'd passed earlier. We really needed to shake them off so pressed on to try and build a gap.

This year the organisers had opted to send the route straight down the tarmac road of Honister pass since the recent rains had turned the “off road” option into a raging torrent. Steep, downhill Tarmac on trashed quads is unpleasant enough, even more so when your hanging on to your partner's run pace for all that you are worth! And then, as if things weren't bad enough, the heavens opened with icy hail! We both looked to our right, at the Dale head ridge now shrouded in grey cloud. We spared a few thoughts for the poor souls up there now. I pulled up my wetsuit zip and knuckled down.

About 2.5 miles later, we were back at lake level. “200 meters until your next swim!” shouted a lone supporter. We had built a good gap to the team behind us and, as we neared the final swim entry point, we could make out a team ahead, halfway though the final 600m crossing. So while our position was now unlikely to improve, it looked safe.

The final swim leg

Paul and I enjoyed this last swim back in the calmer waters of Buttermere. The long run section had afforded our arms some recovery and we attacked the stage with gusto. Swimming side by side in perfect synchronisation. With the finish almost in sniffing distance, it already felt like a celebration.

The final swim leg was soon dispatched and we knew our day was almost done. A mere 1.3miles of lake-shore trail and a final short climb separated us form the finish.

Not wanting to risk losing a place at this late stage, we pushed on along the picturesque, flowing trail. In and out of trees, though a tunnel and passed checkpoint 4 once again. Glancing to our left we saw teams still making their way across the 1000m Buttermere swim leg. They would still have the entire 7 mile Honister Pass run loop to complete. A loop that had taken Paul and I just shy of 2 hours!

Before long we were back on familiar terrain. As the last half mile retraced the first. We crossed the line back at the Buttermere YHA side by side. Were were applauded across the line, 6 and half hours after starting and in 6th place overall. We were greeted by race organiser Ben with two bottles of local beer.

Not alcohol free....

Proper beer...

It never tasted so good. 

Thanks to an awesome partner Paul Lunn

So a few notes about kit....

Paul and I both used the excellent Zone 3 Evolution Swimrun Wetsuit. Short legs, VERY flexible, arms you can cut down to your own preference, front zip for easy ventilation and more pockets than you can shake a stick at - It was fab and performed faultlessly.

We both used Inov-8 X-Talon 200's. This is their "Obstacle Racing" shoe but made the perfect footwear for Swimrun. Roomy, quick draining, super grippy - perfect.

I used Gococo socks. They have some special tech that make them perfect for Swimrun. Fast drying, warm, no blisters.

Inov-8 X-Talon 200's and Gococo socks

We both opted for pull-buoy and hand paddles. If you want to race one of these things, make sure you do LOTS of training with hand paddles before race day.

And finally, your race partner. You are gonna be spending 6 hours plus with somebody in a highly stressed environment. Pick somebody as closely matched to your ability as possible. Hopefully somebody tolerant, dependable, with a spirit of adventure and good sense of humour. I couldn't have picked better!

Cheers Lunny!

And finally a word about Ben and the Breca team...

What an incredible job they have done with the Breca Swimrun. This is not your normal corporate multi-sport event. They have put on an epic event that harks back to the early days of multi-sport. A true test of endurance. Athlete against the environment. Challenging cut-off times. No frills. Just thrills.

You won't find a trade expo and you won't find any ego amongst the competitors.

You get real beer at the finish and access to literally 100's of the best race photographs I have ever seen (all free).

Ben and his team have managed to put on an event that strikes the perfect balance between competitive sport and epic adventure.

I had a complete blast and can't wait until next year!