Make no mistake, this race was brutal. It was only yesterday at the time of writing this post and I want to write it while the pain is still raw. I’m not sure I enjoyed it, at least there were parts that I didn’t enjoy. I’ll come onto those later.
This was my first race of this kind, SwimRun. For those unfamiliar with it, think of it like a running race, but the course cuts across many lakes that you have to swim across to start running again. Because of this, you need to carry what you need for open water swimming. There isn’t a transition as such, so you run in your wetsuit and swim with trainers on and become amphibious.
The course is long, some 44kms with about 6km of swimming in that. Set in the Buttermere valley in the Lake District the running had 2000m of ascent to deal with. They were the painful bits.
The start was from the YHA, 100 pairs of participants all in bright yellow vests and red swim caps mingled outside the hostel, nervously waiting for the start. There didn’t seem to be a signal but we all started moving toward the gate and we were off heading down the road and onto a narrow path. Before long we were at a standstill whilst we waited for the 200 people to get through a kissing gate. I don’t think many were bothered as we knew this was going to be a long day. We’d all been prepared in our swim caps as this first run was only 600m to the shore of Buttermere lake. We stepped down onto the slate beach, shouted our number out, put the goggles on, sighted the exit across the lake, and dived in. This was to be the routine for the next 7 swims.
My body wasn’t prepared for the cool water, nor was I prepared for Tony disappearing off so quickly. Team “One doesn’t Swim, One doesn’t Run” was making sense. I caught up, I expect I was just startled by the temperature and the rather lovely water I was swimming in. Much nicer than the reservoirs of the Pentland Hills.
The lane was busy, we were weaving in and out of other pairs of participants. I hung onto Tony’s feet, punching now and again the studded soles of his trainers. That was sore. The 600m swim was over and done as we staggered out of the water and ashore, shouting our team number and giving each other a low five confirming we were still together and weren’t lost.
Run 2 was short, so short we didn’t unzip our wetsuits. We were destined for Crummock Water taking a route along the Buttermere Dubs (meaning dark water). The pack was still fairly tight with single track running and no overtaking. Heading down to the waters edge we could see the line of kayaks making a route across the water to the other side. The transition was direct with no issue and before I knew it we were swimming again the 600m to the opposite shore. I sat on Tony’s feet again, enjoying the tow. Being the weaker swimmer this was efficient, though not entirely fair.
We exited the water on the other side, following the same routine. The bank was steep with a slight scramble to get through a gate and across a road, narrowly missing a car who looked a bit startled to see people in wetsuits, running and darting up a hill. And a hill it was, it was directly up.
Run 3 was a fair 5kms, and I don’t think either of us were prepared for the gradient. It was a walk, all pairs ahead were walking. It was steep, and climbed 300m in 1km, I’d unzipped and stuffed my swimming cap and goggles into my wetsuit. I was taking it easy as my back immediately began to be tight and fatigue. This does happen to me, though not usually so quick into the climb. I was concerned as I knew what there was to come. I took breaks when I needed to and usually after a 5s break the back would be fine again. We reached the top and we’d climbed a ridge. The sawdust arrows pointed straight along the top of the ridge, Buttermere was sprawled out to our right looking small,though larger mountains loomed above us.
We started over taking folk on this rocky ridge, our training on the hills was paying off, we were more confident on the rocks and the steep grass than others. The descent was almost a dog leg back on ourselves on a runnable gradient back to the shore of Crummock Water. We passed a group of young hikers with backpacks who’d stopped to allow us to fly passed. Their faces said it all “what are they doing?”. Indeed, what were we doing?
Just before the shore was the first aid station and Andy. The seasoned spectator with a gopro in one hand and his iPhone in the other. The station was filled with cake, jelly babies, coke, water, and flapjack. I opted for flapjack and water, with a helping of jelly babies. There was no hanging about. Tony wanted to get on. Preparing for the swim, we zipped up our wetsuits and retrieved our goggles and swim cap. Though slightly premature we still had a bit to run before we jumped in.
The wind was stiff, in our faces, we could see the other side and where the line of kayaks were and there were four of them this time, signalling a longer distance. There was also waves. With trepidation I entered the lake, shouting our team number and getting my goggles on, cleaning the steam of sweat from the inside.
The water was cool after the long run, though in a good way. We started steady and I stayed behind Tony again. My arms were quite tired for some reason, and the waves started to bob us about in the water. At one point I lost Tony, after a wave knocked me off course. We were being over taken by swimmers on either side. The swims I just grinded out, got on with the task in hand. I usually breathe bilaterally but I opted for a one sided technique on these swims and I’m not really sure why. The swim took a while, against the waves, some 22mins to do 1.1kms. Before the shore, I noticed some folk standing up on a rock, Tony was heading straight for it, though I had spied a way around it. He looked back at me just before he hit it and I shouted to go around, he followed. It seemed unnecessary to get out of the water over a rock to get back in.
We hit the shore slightly down from the official exit but I didn’t care, the swim was over with and I felt a tad unsteady. We were on run 4.
We headed along the shore and up a slight hill, opting to walk it, as were all the others. A slight jog started at the top, unzipping slightly and getting more into a jog. We passed a few runners, and through a gate. Andy was walking toward us, he was looking for the check point. I told him he was going the wrong way as we’d not passed it yet! The route followed a road, and up a hill before the checkpoint at Loweswater Hall.
Flapjack, jelly beans, coke and crips were consumed. There was another 12kms of running on this leg, so we decided to ‘Top Down’ which basically means unzipping the top half of the wetsuit so you don’t over heat. After helping each other with this art, we were off again and took a steady pace along the fairly low level banks of Loweswater. The water looking inviting but we had running to do. It was good to get a decent leg in of running, and before we knew it we were climbing again, out of the valley. Through a farm and down a road. I hadn’t seen a marker for a while, the sawdust arrows were hard to see on the ground sometimes, and I’d not seen any red and white tape. I’d lost the map after going top down, it must have popped out my pocket so we decided to run on, albeit down a hill. I was nervous and thought we were going the wrong way. My gut was right. We turned a corner and some other swimrunners were coming back the way, lost like us. I asked for their map and after a quick glance I knew the route to take us back on track. We’d need to follow the road we had found and take a sharp left into a farm house where the route should be obvious. This meant climbing back up what we’d just ran down.
I think we added 1km onto the route but nevermind, we were back on track and running up the hill and running passed others who were walking this. Our hill training was paying off it seemed. The weather was turning, the wind was on our backs and the mist rolled in. Before long we were in torrential rain, running up the side of the valley, gaining quite some height in only a vest and trisuit. The wetsuit around our waists was tempting to put back on. We started the descent down into Buttermere valley, Crummock water ahead some 6kms to go of this leg. I needed to pee. I held on, resisting peeing myself. It’s ok to do it in the lake, but not when I have to run in it. I’m no Radcliffe.
Reaching the checkpoint again, we’d done the North Western section. Andy was holed up in the car avoiding the rain. We shovelled more food and drink down our necks and continued to the lake. I was prepared for the swim this time, but first I needed to relieve myself. It was good, so good. Running with a full bladder was sore and I was glad to have some relief and also some warmth! I was leading this time, and headed out across the lake to a promontory on the same side, basically skirting the shore. It was tough, real tough. Choppy and against the flow it seemed. I hadn’t felt Tony for a while tapping my feet, so I stopped and looked up. He was over to my right, other swimmers were in between. I made my way over slowly and attempted to catch up. I was beaten and couldn’t catch him no matter how hard I tried. I had that constant battle between just taking nice long strokes, to then going off course and having to right myself with a few quicker out of stride strokes.
I staggered out of the water, exhausted and a bit queasy. I couldn’t run just yet, so we walked to get our legs back. I stopped to get pebbles out my shoe. We picked up a path along the Western shore of Crummock Water, paved with smooth stone making going tough on our studded trainers. There was no rhythm to be had here, and we struggled on through. We reached another promontory where we were to do the same as before, swim to the next jut of land on the same side. This time, the water was calm, and I managed a good swim. I was tired though and starting to get hungry again. Exiting the water, we made our way inland for a little bit, and it was uphill. I took the opportunity to eat a cliff bar that Tony retrieved from my back pocket. Team work. I’d recognised the signs of needing to eat, grumpy, grumpy and grumpy. I wasn’t talking much, Tony kept on chatting though. I wolfed down most of it and shared a bite. We started a bimble on some good ground for a change, it was only 1km to the next swim and that came soon enough. Some saw dust arrows pointing us down through the reeds, bog and more bog until we got to the beach. A cheerful Scot greeted us and we exchanged banter. I was in fine fettle again after that sugar and a good run.
We sighted the opposite end of the shore toward Buttermere village and headed in. We were told we were in 31st position at that point. I thought that wasn’t bad, and I could tell Tony as surprised. We should slow down I thought. Feeling tired, I asked Tony to go ahead and he duly did, he didn’t seem bothered about the swims like I did. We reached the end of the lake and ran into the wood. The ground was good going and we got a nice jog on, both unzipping as it was 2km to the next bit of water. Entering the village we both stopped to get stones out of our shoes, they must enter when getting in and out of the lake, and lodge in the ball of the feet making running uncomfortable. A blister would be the last thing we needed.
The cliff bar was still doing its job but I was getting more hungry. My thoughts were targeted at the next aid station and all the lovely cake I’d get to eat, and I would need to, as that would be the start of the climb.
We followed the Western edge of Buttermere Lake until half way down, where the Swim Entrance was situated. A 1km swim was ahead of us. I said to Tony to slow the swim down. “Yes sir” was the reply. The swim was good though, choppy in the middle and toward the end, but the flow was with us. I hung onto the feet for a while, losing him sometimes but sure enough he would slow for me. It seemed to go on for ages, but it’s just one of those things that you have to get on with, even if your arms are tired, I even tried to kick but that didn’t work with the buoyancy calf guards on.
I was glad to have the swim over and done with. I was cold though, and wasn’t able to warm up swimming. Andy was there, camera in hand sheltering under a tree. We waved, and made our way to the food tent.
Tony was in no rush this time, exchanging banter with the ladies serving the food. I was stuffing my face with chocolate cake, flapjack, jelly babies and coke. I heard mention of gels, and in my half-out-of-it fettle, I grabbed the nearest packet that I thought someone said was Salted Caramel. That sounded nice. I grabbed these as I knew what lay ahead. The climb up to Dale Head, via little dale ridge. We’d seen the snake of yellow bibs, making their way vertically up the side of the mountain from the far shore and thought that it was going to be tough.
Tony started a jog out of the checkpoint, I shouted to slow it down as there was no point wasting energy. We got to the road, crossed in front of an ambulance, which I thought was useful and headed into the wood. We were walking, and heading up a steep incline following a stream for a bit, then crossing a style we were in open hill, above the trees and zig zagging up the side of the steep sided hillside.
It was slow going, calves were being stretched, we hadn’t taken our tops off yet, but I was in no rush. I was still cold, even though my heart was racing and we were going the fastest we could. I took small breaks, waiting for Tony to catch up. Tony’s strategy was to take it slow and not stop. Whatever works really. We were overtaken by a few teams, this was to become the norm on this stretch. We kept on going up, and it got steeper. At one point we were scrambling, holding onto the fence line and pulling ourselves up using our arms. I felt sick. Not sure if it was the sugar and cake, or something more sinister.
We were no where near the top, and the rain came through the valley, slowly the rain drops began to get bigger, the wind was getting stronger and we were getting higher. Visibility reduced so much that we couldn’t see the teams ahead. The wind was carrying voices from those still below us, though we could not see. This is why you carry a compass and whistle. I felt nervous, and cold. I’m normally hot when I’m climbing and even with full wetsuit on, I wasn’t warming up. Tony was whinging and so was I. Swim Run Hike more like we’d hear. Reaching what seemed to be the summit, the wind was behind us, the rain or hail, it was hard to tell was battering off my ear lugs. Some folk had put their swimming caps back on to stop the pain of them pelting against the head.
Breaks in the cloud opened up, and we started to head down, though we could see a further up ahead, this undulating ridgeline would continue for another peak. Rain on and off, we’d pass a lone walker looking bemused at the masses of folk in wetsuits on top of a fell. Who needs waterproofs when you can have a wet suit? My knees were sore on the downhills, Tony’s groin was sore and he couldn’t run down these types of banks, where rock drop offs were too much to stretch to. We were walking most of the way. It had taken us an hour and a half to get to the 2nd peak, and there was the third in front. Would this end?
The cloud dispersed for a moment, revealing valleys on either side of the ridge, with Honister slate mine in the top of the valley, way below. That was our next checkpoint. That was where food and water were located, though I could have done with some then. I opened a gel, realising my mistake was to pick up Salted Watermelon rather than Salted Caramel, urgh. I tucked into a cliff bar instead, slowly chewing with my dry mouth. It became stuck in my throat and I could eat it no more. Arriving at a cairn, I recalled at the briefing that this meant we needed to take a Southerly direction to the checkpoint. We were in the clouds, the rain was on again, but it was fairly obvious where to go with a huge arrow made of sawdust pointing us down the mountain. It was slow going again, I had picked up a sore upper back this time from what I thought was just a niggle from being trapped inside a wetsuit and attempting climb bent. It was sore to run down, and so I took to walking which was good as Tony couldn’t run either. What a pair!
We reached the checkpoint, the volunteers manning this one were troopers, as the weather was the worst up here. We drank coke, ate chocolate cake and munched on jelly babies. 5 cakes so far for my birthday, not bad!
It was cold, and the wind was now in our faces, it was time to move. We took a slight jog down the road to Buttermere, and where the incline became too steep to run, we walked. The rain never stopped. I was tempted to put goggles on to stop the rain pelting my eye balls but I carried on. It is fair to say it was miserable. Reaching the valley floor, the incline reduced and we were able to get a good jog on. The rain had also eased. Jogging on tarmac with studded trainers on (Inov-8 mudclaws) wasn’t good on my feet. The studs were being pressed into my soles with every step. I was grumpy again. There was all this green and lovely trails, yet we were taken on the road. 4kms later we arrived into Gatesgarth longing to swim. After 10kms of hill, 1000m of ascent, we were ready to take the weight off of our legs.. even I couldn’t wait!
The longer we went on through the race, the longer we spent at transitions and checkpoints having some bants with the other competitors and volunteers. This was no exception. We were almost giddy it was our last swim, and the end was near. Our last swim transition.
The leg was simple, straight across to the promontory on the same side of the lake, some 800m. That was fine. I apologised to Tony as I said I would follow him again as I feared my arms would be useless by this point. The water was calm and we entered just after another team with their pool bouys, paddle and tether entered the lake. Tony and I had none of these, except buoyant calf guards to keep the feet up in the water. Tony’s idea was to draft these two but it soon became evident they were also tired and weren’t going fast. In a moment of dread he over took them, and at this point I had no idea the reasons why, but I kept up, so much so I was keeping up without much effort. It was relatively easy. I hung onto his feet enjoying the cool water. After a bit I’d look up to sight and I could see he wasn’t heading for the exit, but some way inland, so I took the bold move to overtake, or rather go alongside in an effort to get him to come over to the left a bit. He kinda did and we exited together.
I think at this point it was disbelief, disbelief that we were almost there and also disbelief we were gonna run again. I didn’t even bother putting my goggles or hat away, and just kept ahold of them, I did unzip a tad and began to run.
We followed the shoreline of Buttermere, through a tunnel and over many tree routes. We didn’t see any other teams and we were well ahead of those behind us. We were making good progress, a swift 6min kms! I could make out the spot where we entered the lake first, and that meant we would be 600m from the finish at that point. This spurred me on, and I felt lighter in my stride. Following the route back up to the road we were making good ground, it was almost over.
Hitting the road, there were spectators cheering as there was in many places along the course. We rounded the corner and ran through the flags arms around each other to a roar of cheers and clapping to those milling around outside. We were immediately handed two bottles of beer and glasses as well as a goody bag. I didn’t expect the beer to be alcoholic, but it was. Jennings Cumberland ale.
That was it. 45kms total. 8hrs 12mins. All I could think of was “That was brutal”.
Good things about the race:
- The setting in the beautiful Lake District
- The novelty factor about SwimRun
- The running was epic in places
- The beer at the end of the race
- The leisurely start to the race, 10am!
- Excellent aid stations
- Excellent volunteers/ crew
Things that should be improved
- Dale head was amazing but some shallower inclines would make a better swimRUN
- Running on tarmac for a long period of time is bad for a race meant for trail
- Markers at Farm above Loweswater could be better marked – we weren’t the only ones to go the wrong way
- No food at the end! At least some more cake or bananas would have been good.
- The route to the lake – the kissing gate was a pinch point.