Friday, 11 August 2017

Into the Fresh Air - Breca Buttermere 2017

It was a race I had been looking forward to all year. A chance to break from the stress and pressure of Ironman racing. A chance to get back to basics and just spend an epic day swimming and running with a mate. Some much needed physical and metaphorical fresh air.

No stress, no expectation, just a great adventure with wifey and some pals

The Breca Buttremere swim run has all I love about sport. A challenging course, beautiful landscapes, breathtaking vistas, a slightly “out there” vibe (running in a wetsuit for goodness sake) and camaraderie by the bucket load.

An impromptu change to my racing calendar would mean that I’d have to toe the line a mere two weeks after completing Ironman UK, my second Ironman event of the year. My race partner Paul “Lunny” Lunn would have an extra week’s recovery on me, having completed Ironman Frankfurt a whole 3 weeks before the start. Slacker.

So while we weren’t the most sprightly pair of competitors on the eve of the event, we vowed to make the most of it and to simply enjoy the day. Certainly, with 38k of knarly fell running and 6k of lake swimming, split over 19 different sections, we were sure to get our “enjoyment” fix.

Lunny and I before departure to the start

Talking tactics in our campsite before race day phrases like “starting steady” and “keeping our powder dry” were offered up with approving nods and copious amounts of tea.

But when you find yourself in 3rd place after the first run section... the red mist has a tendency to descend and the racing inevitably starts!

Who’d have guessed.

Rewind to the start where 100+ neoprene clad pairs gathered in the tipping rain having been driven, by coach, to the start of the new and improved “point to point” course. The route would see us run and swim generally East from our starting point West of Loweswater, linking 3 further lakes (Crummock, Buttermere, Derwent) with a series of fell running sections ranging from 0.3 – 14.5 Kilometers. We’d end up several hours later in Keswick. Thankfully, all the best bits of the 2016 race remained. It was an epic route that organiser Ben had worked tirelessly to secure.

For the race, Paul and I were joined by Claire and her partner Kat. Some weeks before, we had all ventured up to the Lakes for a reccy weekend with Rob Green at the Triathlon Hideaway. But for Rob, Claire and Kat, Brecca Buttermere would be their first official event. The bewildered expressions looked familiar. Paul and I were in the same position last year. Of course we were now both “seasoned pros” having completed a whole “one” Swimrun event before.

Our advice to the newbies was summed up thus.....

Running in a wetsuit kinda sucks...

Swimming in trainers also kinda sucks...

When you’re running, you’ll wish you were swimming...

And when you’re swimming, you’ll wish you were running...

But you are going to absolutely LOVE it!

Before long we were off and it was less than 500 meters before we met our first navigational challenge. A farm gate.

At the sharp end from the off

Reaching the gate in 3rd or 4th we headed straight on, confident in our route choice, only to see the competitors behind us dart left through a gap in the wall. When the teams in front of us decided to follow suit we also had a crisis of confidence and decided to back-track. Confusion ensued before we realised that we’d had it right the first time!

Once back on course we found ourselves in 7th place and happy to settle in to the remains of the opening 4k fell section.

By the time we arrived at Loweswater for the first swim, I was ready for cooling dip. We had both kept our wetsuits fully zipped, swim hats and hand paddles on so were able to rapidly transition to swimming.

7th to 3rd in a heartbeat – boom!

My shoulders felt a little heavy – it would take a while for them to warm up. The first swim was relatively sheltered and, at only 400m, quickly despatched.

Still in 3rd we begun a fast 5k section which featured a number of rolling county lanes. Paul and I were in our element. Lunny was pushing the pace, eager to consolidate our position. I was happy to sit in behind.

“Easy start my arse” I chuckled.

hanging in there

We made ourselves ready as we approached the next swim, a 1k smash across the widest part of Crummock Water, the longest swim of the event. Once away from the shore the conditions became quite challenging. Squall had whipped up waves around us which came crashing over our heads. The rain was being blown on the wind and hitting us sideways like the intermittent spray from large motor boat.

We stayed close together – our swim speed perfectly matched.

This was a crazy stuff but I was loving the challenge that the elements offered.

Crummock delivered some challenging conditions

By halfway we had been passed by the 4th place team who were clearly incredibly strong in the water. They were thriving in the tough conditions and went on to build a decent lead over the 1k leg.

Next up a 2k stretch along the lake. The path was a narrow roller-coaster affair, strewn with boulders, which proved difficult to negotiate, particularly while my head was still spinning from the icy dip we had just completed.

Back into Crummock for 500m and 3rd place were still visible in the distance. We were familiar with the run section which followed and knew it featured an opportunity for us to get back on terms - a tough climb up to the Rannerdale knots.

great views from Rannerdale

As we made our way onto the next run section we were greeted by Kat’s partner Mike, who was supporting for the day. He seemed a little surprised to see us in 4th given that we were “not taking it very seriously”. Yeah right!

A quick refuel and we began the first tough climb. Our familiarity with this leg paid dividends as we were able to steal a march on the team ahead to move back into 3rd place.

keeping fuelled is very important

Over the top and the steep slippery descent that followed showed our weakness. I took several hard tumbles on the greasy pitch and we finished the section back in 4th place, and me with a heavily bloodied right arm and dented ego.

A third dip in Crummock (800m) and our nemeses in 3rd extended their lead with another impressive swim.

The run leg that followed was only short at 2.3k but my head was spinning and I was now struggling to make Lunny’s pace. He was definitely in the groove now and bounding smoothly over the tough, rock littered terrain.

Lunny pushing hard

I popped a caffeine gel and shook my head to try and regain some focus. I knew from bitter experience that I had to keep the fuel going down consistently throughout the day.

We were soon at Buttermere for a lovely 500m swim in it’s calmer crystal clear waters, followed by a high speed dash along the rolling lake shore. Back in for 300m, running for 2k, followed by another 400m – the very essence of swim run. I was feeling much better as we reached the Dalegarth Guest house where we were able to take advantage of another fuel stop.

Tough going - but gonna get tougher

So if the race so far had been the “Starter” and “Amuse Bouche”, what followed next was the certainly the main course...

14.5 kilometers from the flanks of Buttermere, over the Peaks of Robinson, Dale Head and High Spy before a white knuckle descent to Derwent water. An accumulated altitude gain of 1200m.

Less altitude is gained running up Snowdon.

The first mile of this section is allegedly the steepest in all of Swimrun. And as my Garmin showed just over 30 minutes as it beeped to signal the mile split... I could well believe it!

Too steep for any team to run, a death march is really as good as it gets. At it’s worst we were using the field boundary fence as a banister to pull us ever skywards.

The ridge line from Robinson to Dale Head included a number of cruel rocky descents and numerous false summits before a final killer quad busting drop to the Dale Head Tarn. It was on these technical downhill sections that our lack of fell running skill (and recent Ironman fatigue) became abundantly clear. We had to concede 3 places here and there was precious little we could do about it without risking life and limb.

The only positive was that Paul and I were now equally shagged. I was able to push the pace on the climbs and Paul took the baton on the descents.

The final climb of High Spy gave way to a glorious view of Derwent Water. The final 4 sections of the race, and the finish line itself in Crow Park, stretched out into the distance. The descent was now soft underfoot and within the limits of our limited technical ability and dwindling strength. We pushed on at a solid pace to the penultimate swim, a 600m halfway crossing of Derwent Water to St Herberts Island.

As we ran toward the shore we saw the team we had been vying with all day in the distance. Lunny’s pace visibly increased – he just can’t help himself! We knew that their swimming ability would see them distance themselves once again, but there was honour at stake and we passed them as we entered the water. As suspected, they quickly passed us again but it was motivating to know that we were still in close quarter with the top teams.

The water was a welcome relief as our temperatures had risen significantly during the last run. A welcome relief soon became chilly and so I pressed on in an attempt to keep warm. Unbeknown to me, I’d distanced myself from Lunny during the crossing and arrived on St Herbert’s Island in a panic with no sign of my partner. Believing Paul to be ahead I dashed off into the dense, wooded interior of the island. Arriving on the other side with still no sign of Paul! Shit!

Seconds later Lunny arrived behind me, having wondered why I had decided to try and drop him during the island dash! Soz mate!

We were in the finishing straight now – “dessert” if you will. But the kind of dessert you face when you’ve already made a pig of yourself during your main course. Like a massive piece of sticky toffee pudding...

With syrup.

It was a toughy. A 900m choppy struggle before a 1k dash to the finish-line. The wind had churned the water into draining swell. White horses... The full works. Waves seemed to be crashing over our heads and then pulling us back from our direction of travel. The exit flag was all but invisible in the distance and with no intermediate markers we just got our heads down and battled on.

After what seemed like an eternity, the exit beach finally came into view but took many more minutes to reach. At long last we tentatively pulled ourselves onto the shore, our sea legs struggling to function as supports. The effort from the long 14.5 run leg followed by a 1500m “ice bath” had rendered them useless.

toughest swim saved until the end

We hobbled along the pebbly shore, heads spinning and legs complaining from the cold.

We slowly coerced our limbs back into action and managed to regain some semblance of running just in time to receive the applause from the many bemused tourists gathered around Crow Park. A final left turn and we were into the finish chute.

into the finish cute

We crossed the line in 6hrs 18 minutes and 7th place.

The gaps behind us were quite large, but we would only have to cheer another 2 teams before Claire and Kat sprinted into view in 10th overall and 1st place in the women’s race. A total time of 6hrs 59 minutes and 17 minutes clear of the next female pairing. An incredible debut performance.

awesome performance from Claire and Kat

Rob and partner Ben were going great guns and were still on terms with Claire and Kat at the end of the Dale Head leg. The last two swim stints had tested their mettle to see them finish in 22nd place.

The finish line had a wonderful carnival atmosphere. Tunes and laughter filled the air. Before long there were a steady stream of teams finishing. Every pair crossing the line with the kind of smiles that only swim run can produce.

Finishers were able to soak up the sun, enjoy hot soup and share war stories. I’m not sure you experience this strange combination of exhaustion, happiness and contentment in any other branch of multi-sport. It’s quite wonderful.

They say a problem shared is a problem halved.

I think it’s fair to say an experienced shared is an experienced doubled.

tired but happy

Race organiser Ben de Rivas, his team, the volunteers and Breca Buttermere Swimrun delivered again. Lunny was as dependable (and competitive) as ever. Like I expected anything less. I can’t think of a better person to spend 6 hours swimming and running with.

Fancy another “steady” one next year mate?


Both Paul and I used the Huub Amphibia Swimrun Wetsuit. They performed perfectly over the challenging course offering plenty of ventilation and zero chaffing, swimming or running.

We opted for Inov-8 X-Talon 190 – Great shoes. Light grippy and quick draining.

A Huub Swim Buoy went some way to offsetting the extra drag from the shoes.

We also both used hand paddles – I’m still undecided on this. For me I think I’m marginally quicker, but they are quite fatiguing over 6k of swimming. Practice in training is a must for any would be Swimrunner.

I used a “Flip-Belt” to carry nutrition – A great bit of kit for anyone struggling for a solution to carrying keys, phones or nutrition when training – check them out!

Photo credit

Massive big up to all the hardy professional photographers out on the course. As an entrant you get free access to literally 100's of the most creative race photos you will ever see. Puts other races to shame.