When training for a swimrun, or any outdoor adventure event, you may want to plan interesting routes across challenging terrain, rivers, lakes and ocean. It looks good on paper, but will it be good when you’re actually out there? Are you equipped to recognise hazards, dynamically assess risk, and ultimately make good decisions in the moment?
A recurring theme in accidents in the outdoor adventure world is desire over-ruling judgment. Heuristic traps often contribute to this.
Heuristics are simple rules that people use to make decisions about complex events and situations, such as a safe spot for a river crossing. We tend to apply these rules frequently and subconsciously. In the outdoors, the rules must be relevant to the actual hazards and risks for them to be effective. If they are not, accidents will eventually result.
Heuristic traps occur when the simple rules we use are influenced by factors not relevant to the actual hazards. Being aware of these traps may reduce the likelihood of this. Some of the more common heuristic traps are (from Decision Making for Wilderness Leaders by Ian McCammon, PhD):
If you are looking to create your own swimrun training routes consider your local knowledge of the area, wind direction and strength, tide times, tidal streams, rip currents, water temperature, air temperature, terrain, timings, sunset, escape routes, means of getting help, mobile network coverage, water sources (drinking), and always have a plan B.
If necessary be prepared to call it off completely, on some days Plan T (tea and cake) is the best option.
An approach I use when plotting my own swimrun route is running the planned route first for a full reccie (no swimming). For example if your eventual route is to swim across a lake simply run around the lake first. During your run observe easy get out points, and hazards such as other water users. Also note river flows into the lake, these areas are likely to be the coldest.
WHO ARE YOU WITH?
Swimrun is best when done with a partner, this is how it all started on the Swedish archipelago, mirroring the team approach from adventure racing. Of course whether racing or training, compatibility with your partner/team is crucial. How many times have you been told “never swim alone” or “safety in numbers”? Often this is very good advice, but not always. This standard advice can become an heuristic trap in itself.
On some rare occasions you may be better alone than with others depending on who the others are and what the situation is.
Can you interpret contours? How’s your tidal planning? Do you know the catchment area of a river? What’s your interpretation of synoptic charts like? There’s plenty of course providers out there, or hire/persuade an adventure guide to either help with your planning or support on a particularly challenging route.
If you’re taking on a swimrun what comes between your skin and your trainers is worth considering carefully. There’s a few choices including neoprene, compression socks, or nothing at all. A good starting point is to just wear what you normally run in. Here’s what I’ve learned over years of swimrun racing.
I accidentally came across the Alder Vapour Sock during a March Beach Lifeguard course in Cornwall, just two months before my first OtillO Uto. When I saw them I immediately thought that they could be well suited to swimrun. They have an open heel so drain quick, this also helps with a secure feeling in your trainer.
They were designed to be used with fins, made from 2.5mm soft, double-lined neoprene, and have a built-in velcro “fin-saver” which I cut off as this was surplus to requirements. I used these in many races, but they have now been retired.
Key benefits are: extra cushioning, good drainage - especially if you nick a little hole in the front; extra foot buoyancy; and if you suffer from cold feet these will help. The only negative I found was they’d occasionally collect little pebbles, although I only noticed this at OtillO Isles of Scilly. In terms of weight there’s not much difference between a wet pair of compression socks and these.
Depending on the fit of your trainer you may want to remove the insole of your trainer, worth playing around with.
Popular with many swimrun athletes as they serve more than one purpose - they provide support to your calves on long runs, protect your lower legs from brambles/branches/nettles that you may run past on some of the trails, add warmth, and they can be used to store nutrition. Personally I prefer to store all of my nutrition within my wetsuit, but some use their socks too.
Not much to say here apart from they are relatively cheap and simple, you’ve probably already got some. They are also the lightest of the options discussed so far.
No matter how many functional textiles that are put into socks, it’s rare that they will dry out completely between swims. So if you’re looking in your sock drawer for a solution think about which are the least absorbent, and a snug fit. For a quick home-test soak them in your sink/bucket (do the same with your trainers for a full test!), put them on and run 5km. This will also help you ascertain how well your trainer drains.
A Dab of Vaseline
I’m always seeking minimalist solutions for a number of reasons including: reduced weight; economy; and being close to nature. In addition my feet are wide and get hot quickly so don’t lend themselves to the sock approach, in swimrun or society. I try to walk barefoot as much as possible/acceptable.
I’ve tested this method up to the 45km mark, on BRECA Coniston in 2017 which went well. Originally this race was held in October which meant I’d had the whole season to toughen up my feet, the only addition was a dab of vaseline on my heel. I may not use this method if my feet were straight out of my winter slippers and heading to the early season race.
To toughen up your feet, and general foot care, there’s some great tips at Fixing Your Feet by John Vonhof, mostly aimed at long-distance runners and adventure racers but applicable to swimrun too. I can also recommend his book.
The “barefoot” approach isn’t used by many and it is definitely worth testing pre-race as if it goes wrong it could mean the end of your race. Severe blisters can be very debilitating, if there are cut-offs this debilitation may mean you don’t make them.
I love this approach, but it is a considered one. Like all gear choices, consider the course, conditions, and your body’s current state, don’t fall into an heuristic trap.
A Footnote on Calves
There’s a range of calf-guards available which add leg buoyancy, warmth, protection from the undergrowth, and the possibility of extra storage. They are generally not for me, but they do suit some.
For more knowledge from the field, gear demo, and a mini-swimrun check out our Introduction to Swimrun Workshop.
You can download the related article I wrote for the Outdoor Swimmer Magazine here:
It was another dry day in lockdown land. The challenge was set, our shortest "Racing Apart" event to date which no doubt produced some sustained sweating.
With a notable lack of Rocky clothing available on the high street, even in the good old days of shops, it was perhaps no surprise that the Rocky photo wasn't too hard to judge.
The outstanding entry was from Chris Laughton of Cerist Tri in Machynllleth. He not only donned boxing gloves, boxing shorts and a Rocky face mask, he also climbed Tarren Y Gesail clocking 737m of height gain. Chris will be receiving a TRIBE protein recovery shake.
TOP 3 MALE
Rather appropriately someone called Adrian won the ROCKY 10K.
Half Marathon, Racing Apart - 25th April
1. Chris Mclean (Machynlleth)
2. Adrian Pearce (Bridgend)
3. Brad Williams (Liverpool)
1. Janet Haynes (Cornwall)
2. Leanne O'Leary (Liverpool)
3. Nikara Mahadeo (South Africa)
QUEEN OF THE UP
Caoimhe Connor with 2134m of height gain (Belfast)
KING OF THE UP
Chris Laughton with 2046m of height gain (Machynlleth)
Karl Hutchinson (Kendal)
BEST STRAVA ART
Alice Green (Liverpool) with a lovely big snail. Alice's "course designer" was Iz Green.
WORTHY OF NOTE
We had international runners in South Africa (Nikara Mahadeo), Poland (Michal Stajniak) and Bangladesh (Dibikor Mohajan).
Largest club representation was from Cerist Tri based in Machynlleth.
Brad Williams posted the fastest raw time and Leanne O'Leary posted the fastest female raw time, both members of North Endurance, based in Liverpool.
Lisa Markham took her lovely dog for company.
Pete Scott completed 78 laps of a paddock.
Caoimhe Connor accidentally ran 15 miles, whilst ticking off 6 of the 7 summits of The Mourne Mountains.
James Hodges recorder a VLOG en route, and took a great photo of a phone box.
The photo competition was very hotly contested, thank you.
10 Miles of Racing Apart on 16th May
The dry spell continued. The race was said to be virtual, but make no mistake - the sweat was real.
Entrants lined up from all around the world, from Edinburgh to Essex, Whitley Bay to Cornwall, and South Africa to New Zealand - from the get go this was set to be the most hotly contested race of 2020 so far.
Gary Thapa from Cerist Tri posted an early fast time on Friday as he had to work on Saturday, this was the benchmark in the male category. Shortly after Marissa O'Leary from New Zealand posted a benchmark for the ladies, including an impressive 525m of height gain.
Route plans were racing through runner's heads, fast and flat, or steady and up? In the end Chris Mclean went fast AND up to take the crown. Chris was part of a strong contingent from Cerist Tri, based in Machynlleth. Ronnie Hollington clocked a swift 70 minute raw time, a noticeable height gain, and a little age grading took him into 2nd position. Arwel Price clocked enough height gain and considerable age grading assistance to come in 3rd, a fine race strategy form the Cerist Tri veteran.
Meanwhile in the female category, Janet from Cornwall (Mounts Bay Harriers) took the ladies title with a solid 80 minute raw time, the age grading nudged her past Marissa O'Leary's height gain, and Karen Bowman's equally fast time. Both Chris and Janet also won our Virtual Half Marathon, can they be beaten?
Chris Mclean (first male)
Janet Haynes (first female)
Chris Mclean (most male HG)
Angie Edwards (most female HG)
Chris Laughton (best strava art)
Paul Williams (best photo of you lying down or similar)
No entries (best fancy dress)
WORTHY OF NOTE
Angie Edwards completed 710m of height gain, a bold strategy from the 68 year old gave her the overall height gain title (male and female). Brad Williams and Paul Williams (both from North Endurance) posted raw times of 65 minutes and 67 minutes respectively. Dan Attridge got injured last week so completed the 10 miles by walking it.
The photo competition was very hard to judge, in the end I had to give it to Paul Williams for originality. The Strava Art competition saw two strong contenders, last time's winner Alice Green, and the outright winner Chris Laughton with his Dyfi Sheep.
During the Covid-19 pandemic virtual running races have become popular. Such races give participants the opportunity to plan and run their own course from their home, running a set horizontal distance (for example 10km). As such each participant would be running a different route with varying amounts of height gain, over the same horizontal distance, whilst adhering to the social distancing guidelines.
In April 2020 Dave Talbot, an adventure specialist from Bristol, devised a simple method to help calculate fair results so that they reflected each respective height gain by subtracting 1 minute for every 25m of height gain. On a bigger scale: subtract 4 minutes for every 100m of height gain.
Dave shared his initial tests with myself, I then derived this formula based on Dave's initial predictions and testing:
TT = CT - (2.4 x HG) / 60
TT = Talbot Time (minutes)
CT = Clock Time (minutes)
HG = Height Gain (metres)
As in walking (Naismith's Rule) there are variables such as terrain and amount of kit carried.
We are now testing this formula on a number of virtual races during the Covid-19 pandemic, initially we are looking at distances of 10km to 21.1km. These virtual races provide focus, motivation and fun to runners all over the world.
When lock down first started, the media and governing bodies were quick to point out that swimming outdoors was not permitted (article from The Independent) however, these announcements did not stand up to what the original lock down laws stated and there was no specification in law about what type of exercise was and was not permissible, each nation later evolved the legislation to their own lands. But after some unusual measures in the early stages of lockdown, such as Police dying lakes black, and some nations banning outdoor swimming completely, I had to ask myself were outdoor swimmers disproportionately hard done by?
Between 2014 and 2018 the drowning fatality totals in the UK were:
There are several other "groupings" of people who drown such as angling, commercial, powerboating etc. but the largest grouping is consistently walkers/runners. Without the total numbers partaking in each activity it's hard to fully assess risk, but at the very least, this highlights why it is important for all of our society to be able to swim, and cope with immersion.
WHY WAS SWIMMING SINGLED OUT?
A key problem is that the term "swimming" is used loosely. Often anyone in water is called a swimmer (particularity by some reporters), even though they may have never swum in open water before, or may not know how to swim.
In the first weekend after water activities were "allowed" (16th - 17th May in England) there were 194 rescues reported by HM Coastguard, none of which involved swimmers:
"Coastguard rescue teams from around the UK were called out 194 times to incidents including inflatables drifting offshore, crashed and broken down jet-skis and pleasure boats, people injured while out walking or cycling along the coast, paddle boarders, kayakers, windsurfers and kite surfers who found themselves in difficulty and people cut off by the tide or stuck in mud." published on HM COASTGUARD official social media accounts.
During the last weeks of May there were several coastal fatalities involving people jumping off cliffs, upturned boats, jet-skis, kayaks, and surfers. Participation in these activities often includes high speeds and hard objects, unlike swimming at, say 2 mph, unless you get hit by a Jet-ski.
As a RNLI Beach Lifeguard, and keen swimmer, I realise the awkward position HM Coastguard and the RNLI have been in during this uncertain time. That said I can't help get frustrated with how swimming is portrayed as a higher risk activity than many others. The evidence simply doesn't stack up. Outdoor swimmers who swim are relatively safe. Fish who can't swim are relatively unsafe.
PRESSURE ON THE NHS
In 2018, 99 cyclists were killed, 4106 seriously injured and 13345 slightly injured in Great Britain (from ROSPA). That's one heck of a pressure on the NHS. I tried to find stats on serious injuries to swimmers. Nothing. It makes sense, in swimming you are generally travelling less than around 2mph.
In May the cycling website road.cc reported "Cyclist deaths double during lockdown at twice the average for the time of year".
Which is more risky cycling or swimming? Which activity will put the most pressure on the NHS? The evidence points to cycling. Indeed running, walking, and DIY could also be up there.
Some would argue that smokers and the obese lead the way in putting pressure on the NHS, indeed in Wales heart disease is the biggest cause of death with around 9,500 deaths per year. Many of these deaths could be prevented with healthy eating, exercise and lifestyle change.
I know of three members of my extended family who attended A & E during the "lockdown" period. All of these injuries happened at home or in the garden. This isn't surprising, when I think of the all the times I or members of my family have had to go to A & E the accidents overwhelmingly occur at home. Never as a result of swimming.
It wasn't long ago that Dr Chris van Tulleken (the doctor who gave up drugs) advocated outdoor swimming as a treatment for depression (BMJ Article here). Note - the number of drownings classed as suicide are on the rise.
Is swimming mis-represented at authority levels? If you are an adult who can't swim do you become anti-swimming? Are you resentful that your school or parents didn't teach you to swim? I think I would be. Does this skew your perception of the risks involved with swimming? Do decision-makers see swimming as a life-skill? And if not then why is swimming the only sport to be included within the national curriculum?
In 2019 I volunteered in the delivery of the superb Swim Safe program organised by The RNLI & Swim Wales, it was notable how many parents asked if their was a similar course for adults.
One of the joys of swimrun is shared experience, but racing with a partner can be a barrier to participation. Adopted from the adventure racing world, racing in teams plays a part in your safety - the harder the race, the more important your partner becomes. With the introduction of shorter and less exposed courses there is often a solo option, but it’s not as good as racing in a team.
Finding a Partner
If you have a network of swimming or running buddies it shouldn’t be too hard. Another option is to enter a solo race, stick around for the post-race social and see if any of the other solos fancy teaming up. It’s also worth emailing race organisers as they can sometimes help match you up. Maybe look closer to home - have you got a family member who you could convince to join you? There are several high performing husband-wife, sibling, and parent-child teams on the circuit. If you are travelling to a race it’s nice to share travel and accommodation costs too.
Partner sorted, now on to becoming an effective team.
The basics, compare your times for a 400m swim (pool) and 5km run (parkrun). This is an easy way to give you a baseline. Then compare your time for a 1.5km open water swim and a 10km trail run, ideally wearing what you expect to wear come race day. These comparisons will highlight particular strengths. Also note who is the best at sighting, swimming in a straight line, and running on technical terrain. Once you know your individual strengths you can decide on how you will operate as a team come race day.
Choosing a Race
All swimruns are different, very different. On each event website check the swim to run ratio, the longest swim, longest run, amount of ascent, terrain, number of transitions, expected weather & water temperature, aid stations, and cut-offs. Often there are videos and photos of previous years which can help you build a picture of whether a particular race is right for your team.
Towing makes drafting easy, increases your team swim speed and keeps you and your partner together during swim sections. The bigger the difference between individual swim speeds the more benefit you’ll get from using it. I still use it even when I race with a partner with the same swim speed, in this case you can take turns in leading.
The tow can be of benefit on the runs too. A length of no more than 3m keeps most at the right distance on the runs and swims; however, experiment with your teammate to find out what works best for you. Make sure it is easy to unclip your tow as you will want to unclip on some run sections.
Of course it is important to use what you have trained with. If you are not comfortable with something then don’t use it on race day.
Kit Management & Transitions
Smooth, well-drilled transitions are essential for a good performance on race day, a big part of smooth transitions involves working together. Practice getting in and out of water together (with tow system) as much as you can. Be comfortable and well-practiced with hand paddles and pull-buoy management - recognise when your partner needs help.
Learn The Course
Knowing the length of each leg will help determine your wetsuit strategy on race day. If you are staring down the barrel of an 8km run with ascent, you may want to pull down your wetsuit; if it’s a 1km jog until the next swim, you won’t. Similarly, knowing the length of the swim you are about to undertake will help you mentally prepare for what lies ahead. If you both know this you can anticipate when your partner may need help with a zip.
Tip: write the run and swim distances on your arm or hand paddles. If you do write them on your arm, use the smooth inside of your forearm, as writing on the hairy part is more likely to rub off over the course of a race.
At it's best swimrun takes you and your partner on a challenging, adventurous journey through the natural environment, it makes you happy.
In the words of Chris McCandles “Happiness is only real when shared”.
This article was also published in the April edition of the Outdoor Swimmer Magazine:
We, like many, are struggling but we are persevering in this uncertain time.
POSTPONEMENTS DUE TO COVID-19 RESTRICTIONS
Anyone who has entered an event will receive an email (to the email used on sign up) with details of any postponements. If the new date doesn't suit please consider deferring or transferring to any of our other events.
Refunds are an option, but we ask you to consider all of the transfer and deferral options. We do however understand if you request a refund.
Confirmed postponements with new date:
Dyfi X Trail Marathon: 24th April 2021
Cadair X Half Marathon: 26th June 2021
Dyfi ULTRA: 5th June 2021
Beat The Tide & Tafol Tumble: 25th Sep 2021
The Dovey 13km: 26th Sep 2021
The COOL MILE & KM: 6th Nov 2021
During lockdown we have held a two virtual race series which have gone down really well with participants, kept people motivated and had fun. With LOCKDOWN III upon us we've launched 5 new races to get you through January.
We are a small, nimble organisation, with your continued support we will get through this, and continue to provide challenging, adventurous and fun events for years to come.
After years of preaching about how the team element of swimrun is fundamental to the joy of the sport I figured that I should at least try a solo race so I can back up my argument. And here it was OTILLO Malta Sprint.
It was a fast start, so fast in fact that a slight nudge on my right leg from a fellow racer caused me to topple over only 300m into the race. I hit the tarmac superman style sliding on my hand paddles which protected my palms well, my knees suffered minor scrapes, good start Mike.
I couldn't wait to get to the first swim, it was a slight bottle-neck with rough water and bouncing swell all around, loved it. This went quickly, as did the following short runs and short swims. I started to overtake during the swims and on the technical downhill runs, my race was going well. I arrived at the penultimate swim (650m) with no-one in the water to sight off, no boats and no visible exit point. Unfortunately I misunderstood the marshals directions and added an extra 400m swim to this 650m swim.
I cracked on with the long run and began overtaking two male teams who had passed me on my extended swim. I got to the last swim (700m) neck and neck with a fellow solo man, he edged it on this swim to claim 5th place (solo). I was happy with 6th place in the solo (out of 61), and 8th overall (out of 149). My error nagged at me a little, but it was nothing a couple of cans of Cisk couldn't rectify.
With the water temperature at 20 degrees I went for the zero-neoprene option which worked well, other than having to stuff a race-cup, whistle, map and compression bandage in my speedos. I am happy to report they lasted the course. Big thanks to Andy for the loan of the whistle and bandage, sorry about where I stored them.
A fabulous race with technical run sections and interesting swimming, but what's the verdict on solo versus team? Swimrun is definitely better together. It almost saddens me that there is a solo category but I do understand why it exists. Solo can be a "way-in" to the sport for some, and many then find a partner.
It felt strange not competing on the Sunday, but it gave me the chance to support, take some photos, and treat my long-suffering fiance to a visit to Popeye Village. Looking forward to returning to the World Series in 2020, in particular Malta!
Through competing and organising I have become acutely aware of how much waste, packaging, shipping and general carbon footprint can occur in the event world. We want to reduce this.
We are going to have a set of swim hats for all our swim events. They will be high-quality, number-printed, and made in the UK. We will hand them out at registration of each event and collect them in at the end. We will be donating our remaining surplus swim hats from previous events to local swim clubs in Tywyn, Machynlleth and Aberystwyth.
We have never given out medals as we have always seen them as a waste of the earth's resources, however we have always given out a race souvenir to all participants. These have always had a use, such as our local slate coasters (made from slate quarried 15 miles away), our bottle-opener fridge magnets, customised bottles of beer, our re-usable race cups, and our CADAIR X mugs. There is room for improvement here and we are working on it.
T-SHIRTS, HOODIES & MORE
We have been looking into options regarding a supplier of high-quality, organic, sustainable and ethically produced hoodies (UK based). Really pleased to announce we have now found a suitable supplier - Teemill. Made to order from organic cotton using low waste printing technology in a wind-powered factory. No plastic packaging, free deliveries every last weekend of the month!
There is a train station 5 minutes walk from our Aberdovey swims, which runs from Birmingham, Aberystwyth and Pwllheli; and a bus stop 30 seconds walk from our Tal Y Llyn swims & CADAIR X, which runs between Dolgellau and Tywyn. We have informally helped with car shares via our facebook page. We are now going to actively encourage, and help to facilitate this for all future events.
KEEPING IT LOCAL
We are proud that all of our water safety team & marshals live within 12 miles of our events. They are experienced & qualified outdoor professionals who live and work on the coastlines, rivers & mountains of South Snowdonia, year round, all seasons, whatever the weather. Our Professional Event Photographer, Dan Wyre, also lives within this 12 mile radius. We also work closely with Dovey Yacht Club and The Tyn Y Cornel Hotel. Our nutrition partner WILD TRAIL Snacks is based just 4 miles from Aberdovey and 10 miles from Tal Y Llyn, that's pretty local. The bars are produced on site and I pick them up myself when passing through Tywyn.
We are working with our prize partners HEAD Swimming, SMOCSMOC (bamboo based products), and SELKIE Swim Co. to further reduce waste & carbon footprint. This may take time to develop but we are moving in the right direction.
We will continue to limit numbers of participants to a maximum of 200 (most of our events have a maximum of 100), we feel it's a better experience for everyone this way.
We are a member of the SURFERS AGAINST SEWAGE 250 Club, funded by 50p from every entry.
As a competitor I have never liked race numbers, some folks keep them as a memento but many just throw them away. For CADAIR X we went old school with a black marker pen. We are currently looking for a system that aligns with our ethos, if we can't then we will persevere with the marker pen approach.
Reduce, Re-use, Recycle. We are far from perfect but we have made a start.
Recycle your old race medals here.
Racing at Llanberis once again with Paul Skipper in what's become a very sociable event. It was a hot day so I pulled out my "hot-pants" version of the HEAD Aero.
This year we felt our swimming was fairly strong but neither of us had kicked in with our run training. Our teamwork had really developed at OTILLO Uto 2018, as had our speed in transition.
We started steady, running just behind two teams, entering the first swim in third place. First swim complete (500m), we got out of the water sharing the lead with another team (Team FFH, who I recognised from Loveswimrun Holy Island, 2017). They made a burst up hill which was fine with us. It became clear that the top two positions would most likely be us and them.
We settled into a sustainable run about 100m behind them until the steep descent where we just overtook them entering the second swim (500m), very close together. We stayed close throughout the short run and third swim (1km) - ready for what would be the shake down - the 8km run with a long steady ascent and steep technical descent.
They set off with a burst which they couldn't sustain as a team, we saw our chance and overtook just before the long ascent into the quarries. It looked like one was a stronger swimmer and the other was a significantly stronger runner. If they'd worked better as a team they would have pushed us harder.
We didn't look back and grew our lead all the way to the final 1km swim and the finish line. Great to get a Llanberis win after some mis-haps in 2016 and 2017. Having just looked back through the results I've just realised we set a course record at 2hr 11m 19s - bonus!
Well done to Chloe, Johnny and all the LoveSwimRun team. It's a shame this event doesn't get more teams entering - there seems to be less teams and more solos each year, not sure why. For me part of the joy of swimrun is shared experience.
When I saw Alan’s post on an email from Explorer’s Connect something connected. It read something like this “I’m walking from Manchester to Dingle. I somehow need to cross the Irish Sea, maybe rowing or kayaking, any help or advice appreciated”
I emailed Alan, we established he had never been in a sea kayak before, he had a life-long fear of deep water and only learned to swim in the last year. Despite all of this he wanted to journey 60 miles across the Irish sea in a kayak.
Alan was undertaking the journey in memory of his sister who had died a few years ago, in the process he was hoping to raise money for MIND Manchester and Camphill Communities - Dingle.
Alan had done some earlier research into rowing and had had a quote for a support boat of £5000. Quite a cost for a journey that was meant to be raising money not spending it. Having taken complete novices on some successful, albeit much shorter, journeys in double sea kayaks I suggested that this could be the best way to make the crossing, which he liked the sound of.
So first thing’s first we needed to meet, and get Alan in a kayak. He drove down to Aberdovey, we chatted, we had a pleasant paddle in the estuary, performed a capsize and self-rescue, chatted some more, ate, and arranged another more testing kayak training day 3 weeks down the line.
Alan was keen to work on his fitness in the meantime so I advised him to go swimming as much as possible to boost his shoulder and back muscles, and it’s also great to be as comfortable in the water as on it.
So a few weeks later Alan came down again. There was a bit more wind about, a steady force 3 gusting 4/5. We paddled from Aberdovey up to Cae Du and back and went through an impressive hail storm. We also had a chance to play around in the surf on the edge of Aberdovey bar. All went well. I felt confident, given favourable conditions, that the only thing that would stop us paddling to Ireland would be a lack of perseverance. I’d only met Alan twice but after listening to his motivation for taking on the journey I believed that he would have enough in the tank.
I got in touch with a few paddling companies - Reed ChillCheater sponsored us with super warm base layers and beanies, Stu from VE Paddles supplied two super light paddles which I highly recommend, Nigel Dennis said he would make us a new Double Sea Kayak(!) however given the time available this didn’t work out, but it was a nice thought. Thankfully The Outward Bound Trust lent us a Perception Horizon Double Sea Kayak, not normally the boat of choice for open water sea crossings, but as this was the boat we had trained in it seemed right to use it for the crossing.
I ruled out any notion of a support boat. We would either do it self-sufficiently or not at all. A support boat adds another dynamic, and cost, which we didn’t need. All we needed was light winds and the ability to keep paddling west.
So Alan started his walk from Manchester and planned to be in Holyhead 10 days later. If I had spent an extended time in Manchester I too would want to leave it any way possible. I started studying the weather 7 days in advance, 5 days, 3 days this is normally when things start to firm up 2 days…. yes it’s looking good. I confirm to Alan who was somewhere near Bangor that we should take our chance the morning after he arrives in Holyhead. Sunday 15th June - the very first day of our weather window.
We met on the Saturday evening at Anglesey Outdoors, had a good feed in the Paddler’s Return, and popped down to Porth Dafarch for Alan’s first look at where we would launch from on the Sunday. It was flat as a pancake. Encouraging.
Sunday, 15th May 2016. A couple of Alan’s friend’s met us at Porth Dafarch, they looked quite nervous. In line with my tidal planning (to get us through the Penrhyn Mawr tide race unscathed) we had a rather civilised 10:20am start. Off we went. Paddling. There was a steady Force 3 from the NW for a couple of hours, thankfully this eased by around 14:00. We paddled. Stopped every hour for a couple of minutes to eat something small, little and often was the strategy. Every now and then one of us would wee allowing the other to have a slightly extended rest.
Around about 21:00 I busted out the music system that I had made watertight in a big tupperware container. Quite surreal listening to Dwight Yoakam whilst not being able to see land in any direction. Then suddenly what I thought was a freak wave broke 3 metres to our right. It was actually a minke whale trying to catch a listen to some honky-tonk. It gave me quite a shock but was then instantly calming as we watched it swim to the south, every now and then breaching the now very calm surface of the Irish Sea.
We paddled. It got dark. We noted the massive ferries, sometimes to our north, sometimes to our south.
We started to see the glow of Dublin. The battery died on the music system.
I had a period around 02:30am when I felt incredibly committed and slightly vulnerable, which as it happens I was. Alan started singing. Then it was my turn, we alternated for around an hour which helped us to keep paddling through the darkness.
We could see lots of port lights, boat lights, most of them confusing. I started seeing strange shapes, was I hallucinating? I contacted Dublin Coastguard on the VHF radio to let them know we are big eaters.
06:00 we had been able to see Dublin for an annoying amount of time now, we were trying to pin-point Dun Laoghaire Harbour as this is where I would be getting the ferry back to Holyhead from…. or so I thought.
We paddled. The wind picked up from the West.
We spotted Dalkey Island. We went for it. We thought we saw a man standing on the sea, it was in fact a buoy. Our paddling efficiency was beginning to fail and we struggled on to the east side of Dun Laoghaire Harbour wall, we crawled onto the rocks.
Monday 16th May, 07:50am. We had made it to Ireland.
We clambered over the wall somehow and looked at a peaceful harbour that looked quite celubrious. There was a distinct lack of ferry action. We looked particularly ungraceful as the morning Dublin joggers whistled past our array of dry bags, damp kit, and general salty mess.
Alan made some phone calls to his Dublin friend. A Port Authority vehicle pulled up, for a minute I thought we were in trouble. But no it was Alan’s friend of a friend. Things were happening. A friend of the friend of a friend pulled up in a VW Transporter, we proceeded to put a double sea kayak in the back of a van… it certainly didn’t fit but it didn’t matter, we were in Ireland.
So it turns out that ferries had stopped operating out of Dun Laoghaire a couple of years ago, they all depart from Dublin Port now. Luckily I now had the VW Transporter to take me there.
All sorts of shenanigans occurred at Dublin Port including an appearance on a SKY television programme on importing drugs with a kayak, a story for another time. Big thanks to Vinnie from Stena Line for helping me make it onto the ferry with the kayak.
The crossing had taken close to 22 hours and the end seemed so rushed. I had to get back to Wales for work, and Alan had to continue on his walk to Dingle. Next time I paddle to Ireland I’ll stay there a little longer.
Many thanks to VE Paddles, Reed ChillCheater, Stena Line and The Outward Bound Trust - if you want to move very slowly but steadily across the Irish Sea then the Perception Horizon is the boat of choice.
Alan raised over £20,000 for his chosen charities - MIND Manchester & Camphill Communities - Dingle.
My new favourite BRECA race, report to follow...
It was great to be racing at the home of swimrun once again, this time with brother-in-law Paul. We placed somewhere in the top half, which was a welcome surprise given are cumulative weight.
One thing stood out this time, in 2015 it was the waves, in 2014 it was the after-party, this year it was the emphasis on environmental impact.
Have you ever been annoyed by the amount of wasted cups or plastic water bottles at marathon, triathlon or other events? Well several swimrun race directors are leading the way when it comes to cutting down on waste using a method that is becoming more common in the world of long-distance racing.
Ben at BRECA Swimrun started the re-usable cup initiative for swimrun in 2017 at the BRECA Wanaka race in New Zealand and all subsequent races. So it was great to see OtillO get wholeheartedly on-board at Uto by giving out collapsible, re-usable cups to use at this race and beyond.
There were paper cups at the first two aid stations to avoid congestion in the early stages, from then on in it was use your own. In addition there were no gels at the aid stations, the nutrition was provided in pre-cut mouth-sized chunks, so none of that wasteful individual packaging.
The collapsible cups were made of silicone, you could easily stuff them in to your wetsuit no problem. We both stuffed ours up the leg of our wetsuits and they stayed put throughout the race. I'll certainly be re-using mine on future races and on long mountain challenges such as the Welsh 3000s to fill up from streams.
Well done to BRECA, OtillO, and to LoveSwimRun who have adopted similar approaches in their races. Our own mountain race, CADAIR X, adopted a re-usable approach at water stations from day 1. The times they are a changing - as event participants we can influence change by embracing the reduce, re-use, recycle mantra.
If the races you enter aren't doing this then ask some questions.
Here's some video highlights of the actual race day, can you spot team 110?
Further reading... this informative article from The Guardian.
With the continued growth of swimrun races on UK shores the swimrun format is becoming recognised as the most engaging way to journey across our landscape.
There’s swimruns on dramatic coastlines (Anglesey, The Gower, Jersey, Isles of Scilly), inspiring lakes (Snowdonia, The Lake District and the Lochs of Scotland). There’s even a swimrun version of the Bob Graham Round (the Frog Graham). So with all these challenges there's lots of scope for cramp to set in...
Avoiding Leg Cramp
One simple practical measure you can take to reduce the chance of getting calf cramp is to use a pull buoy (standard practise on swimruns), or just don’t kick your legs as much.
General advice is to eat foods that contain potassium, a mineral that helps your body break down carbohydrates and build muscle. Suggestions: dried fruits; tomato juice, citrus juice, milk; melon, an orange, or a banana. Drink a lot of water too: It maintains circulation and helps flush cramp-causing waste products from your muscles. It’s definitely worth testing which foods work for you in your training schedule. Also think about which of these foods you can eat just after a 5k run and just before a 1k swim.
During races the aid stations are normally sufficiently stocked with enough of the right stuff to see you through to the end. On longer training swimruns I would carry some jelly-babies/gel, some salted nuts and an electrolyte drink.
It’s a good idea to spruce up your water bottle with some electrolyte replacement. The major electrolytes in the body include: sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, magnesium, bicarbonate, phosphate and sulfate. You can make your own or buy some dissolvable electrolyte tablets - I can recommend High 5, tube of 20 for £2.79 from wiggle.
Make Your Own
Or the simple version - mix water, sugar (or cordial) and salt in your water bottle.
Why Are Electrolytes Important?
Electrolytes are important because cells use them to transmit electrical impulses across their membranes and to other cells throughout the body. These electrical charges regulate nerve impulses, heart functions and muscle contractions.
Leg cramps can be really debilitating, follow the advice above and hopefully you'll avoid them.
So you've probably trained for a running event before, probably trained for a swimming event or a triathlon before. The key difference with swimrun racing is that you will be racing with a partner* in unusual attire, in the water, out the water, repeat.
Best practice is to train with your partner, if you can. If you can't then not to worry, you'll just have to treat the first third of your swimrun race as training... this can go well, and it can go very wrong.
RUNNING IN A WETSUIT
The second thing to get your head around is running in your wetsuit - it's perfectly OK to cut down an old thin wetsuit and race in this. Although the first time you cut your wetsuit it feels like sacrilege, it is how many swimrunners start. You may want to invest in a swimrun specific wetsuit further down the line, they provide the advantages of having the zip on the front, and greater flexibility in the legs. There are many run sections that you will want to unzip your wetsuit and roll it down to the waist ("cab down" is what the cool kids call it). The easier it is to do this the faster your transition will be.
We have thoroughly tested, and can recommend the HEAD Aero which we reviewed here.
So wetsuit sorted - put it on and go for a run!
SWIMMING IN SHOES
Swimming in trainers is no drama. It's just like swimming, except you've got trainers on. Using a pull buoy to increase buoyancy helps. Check out our article on gear to see how to modify your pull buoy. Note when in and out of water your laces (if you use them) can magically untie so make sure you triple knot them, or opt for the lock/bungee laces.
JOINED AT THE HIP
Next up is to try swimming, transitioning and running with a tow system. Coming from a kayaking and white water perspective I was initially very reluctant to tether myself to someone else in the water with lots of other potentially crazy swimmers. The old "water and ropes don't mix" saying is forever present - this is a fixed mindset stand-point, swimrun however is undoubtedly a growth mindset endeavour.
Firstly you won't be using a rope you'll be using a bungee. Secondly you will use a clip/karabiner that should break given significant forces. Thirdly your waist-belt will be releasable (if you use a tow-float waste belt). So in summary don't worry about being tethered at all. You won't realise how effective it is until you try it.
With training the tether can become very effective on the run sections too.
Something that might catch newcomers out is you get given a race bib to race in. This makes unzipping and peeling down your wetsuit slightly more awkward, and will add a little extra drag on your swim.
Try all of the above whilst wearing an old race t-shirt to mimic the bib.
ALL THE GEAR
Forgetting about the kit for a moment, remember the basics - hill training is possibly the most effective run training, so work it into your training schedule. Swimming ten to twenty sets of 100m to 250m at 80% is a simple way to improve your swimming, and a few swim coaching sessions to improve technique can be well worth the investment.
The best swimrun gear in the world isn't as good as lots of consistent training.
One thing I did before Coniston was to write down the 8 swim distances and complete them in the pool (resulting in a great 5km swim session). After each swim distance I pulled myself out of the deep end ("deck-up") had a cold shower and jumped back in, just to mark the end/start of each "transition".
If you can get some swim - run - swim - run sessions in your training then that's ideal. It might be worth a weekend in Wales/Lake District/Scotland/suitable wild area to facilitate this.
Wetsuits - most swimruns require you to wear a wetsuit but there are a few in warmer climes where it is optional. You don't need to shell out on a swimrun specific wetsuit for your first race. Many just take an old triathlon wetsuit and cut at the knees and elbows (depending).
The advantage of swimrun specific suits include more flexibility in the legs, and a front-zip. Up until 2014 there were no such wetsuits on the market, that's almost 10 years after the first OtillO Race.
HEAD Swimming were the pioneers of swimrun wetsuit design, and I can recommend the HEAD Aero. The man behind HEAD's swimrun wetsuit design (Daniel Sand) has since co-founded ARK Sports.
Key considerations are weight, grip and drainage. For the more mountainous races you may want to consider more support and cushioning. We can recommend Inov-8. If in doubt just use what you normally use on a trail run.
There are few rules about what extra gear you can race with. For your first swimrun it's a very good idea to keep it simple. The more kit you have the more you have to manage. In training allow yourself time to experiment with different gear, make mistakes, learn and evolve.
Remember each swimrun is a different, key differences which may influence your kit decisions are:
Kit management can add stress to your race if you are not used to it. For your first swimrun it's not a bad idea to strip back to minimal kit, especially if you haven't trained with your extra kit.
Increase the bouyancy of your lower half by using a pull bouy. You can also play around with ideas to increase bouyancy of lower legs, neoprene calve guards are used by some.
This is effective in the swim for keeping together and speeding up a slower swimmer. It can help on the runs too. A simple 3m length of bungee with 2 clips attached to both partners works. Practice with your partner!
Lots on the market, different sizes, shapes, attachments - try some. Consider the length of the longest swim, transition management, and how you will store them during the runs. If you are going to use them, train with them first! Some paddle advice here.
Remember every swimrun is different just like every human is different. Part of the fun is deciding what's right for you (and your partner) for a given race, on a given day.
So here we were. Coniston Water. With 38km of running and 5km of swimming to come on a cool and Autumnal Lake District day it was time to take on the first ever BRECA Coniston race.
The day before I had managed a quick look at the entry list and saw a couple of strong players in the mixed category, not least the swimrun legends, and World Champions, Daniel Hansson and Kristin Larsson. Every single OtillO race I have ever been to they have always been on the podium. I tried to explain to my sister (Helen) how awesome these guys were, she glazed over and thought of sleep.
Race morning came: grey, cool and moody. Neither of us had run 38km for a very long time, and in the last year Helen could count on her fingers the number of times she'd been swimming. We both agreed we just wanted to complete the course.
The first swim was fast and furious. For some reason the main pack were aiming left of were we should be swimming to, I spotted this early on, cut behind and set a course for the exit. I love confusion in the water, it is so engaging. What was really helpful for sighting this exit was the bright light that someone was shining, so much more effective than flags. Well done to whoever thought of that.
Three more fast runs and swims followed in and around Coniston Water, as we got out of the final swim (of Coniston) there was only one mixed team ahead of us, the Swedish legends. A true honour! Next followed a grueling 12.5km run that took us from the north end of Coniston water to Windermere. Lots of ups, downs, forests and gates. We had known this was going to be tough and we'd be looking forward to getting it done. We were moving well, I was impressed with Helen's pace knowing that her training had been seriously hit by her one year old. At some point during the 12.5km run Team Rick & Rice overtook us pushing us into 3rd place. I knew Rice had strong swimrun pedigree as I'd seen her perform well on the OtillO circuit.
At some point during this run we came across a descent on the most slippery rocks I have ever run on, so slippery that we un-tethered. It was truly remarkable how slippy they were, we embraced it as an agility test - thankfully we both passed.
The next two swims and runs in/around Windermere passed quickly. We faced a 6.5km technical and undulating run to Rydal water. We were starting to slow, I had a particularly bad slow down around about the 5 hour mark... but I picked up again. Helen remained steady throughout which is testament to her stamina, maybe motherhood enhances this quality.
Rydal water. It was great to be swimming again. Unfortunately just before this penultimate swim a mixed team passed us which nudged us off the podium places. A short run after Rydal to the final swim at Grasmere. This was the longest swim (800m); the coolest and the most effected by wind. But when compared to some of the sea-swims of 2017 it was very straight forward. We gained slightly on the 3rd position team but couldn't quite catch them.
It was great to finish with some lovely home-made soup, tea and a heated tent that was like a sauna. With the longest swim being last, and only a short run before the finish line, there were quite a few cold folks so the heated tent was appreciated. This showed a considerate and thoughtful approach to Race Directing by Ben, a good shout.
In the end we came 4th in the mixed category and 9th overall (out of 55 teams).
A superb event and a very welcome addition to the swimrun calendar. Well done to all who took it on and to all the BRECA team for making it happen.
The hugely friendly and popular Loveswimrun Llanberis event returned in 2017 with a slightly different course to the inaugural 2016 route. With my planned partner Owen succumbing to a knee injury the swimrun community kicked in to present Matthew, last year's Llanberis winner in the solo category.
The relatively warm dry May and early June had Llyn Padarn warming up nicely. In the lead up to race day there were some stormy conditions with heavy downpours, which cooled the lake but only fractionally. When it came to race morning conditions were perfect - light winds and light clouds, and a lake temperature of 17.5.
We set off at the front running swiftly, with team 122 by our sides. We soon arrived at the first swim just behind team 122 but overtook them in the water. As we got out of the first swim we saw the arrow pointing right down the train track and we set off in first place. It didn't feel quite right as we expected there to be a turn up into the woods, we got to the start of the 2nd swim too quickly but we cracked on.... something wasn't right. Matthew shouted to me half way across the lake. We stopped, looked around, no one behind us or in sight. We both knew we'd missed a turn. We briefly discussed the situation then turned around and swam back, then ran back along the train track until we found the arrow pointing up into the woods, there was a marshal there now. Turns out we got to that turning point before the marshal was in place!
During the next 30 minutes of the race we were both a little deflated, compared to everyone else we'd done an extra 2km of running and 700m of swimming and we were playing catch up big time. However it wasn't long before our positive race spirit kicked back in as we passed countless happy swimrunners.
In the end we came in in 5th position in the team category, the first time I've been disappointed with 5th. We both felt we could have won this. One thing that will stay with me is to remember not to lead at the start, particularly when racing a new course for the first time.
Aside from our navigational issues it was great to race with Matthew, a strong all-rounder, who I believe has now seen the light - swimrun is better together - get lost together, fight back together!
Thanks to Chloe & Johnny for staging another great event which continues to deliver on friendliness and inclusiveness, and thanks for the special "missing a turn" prizes!
I'm now looking forward to swimrunning in one of my favourite places in the world - Holy Island, Anglesey. I'll be teaming up with my sister to race in the mixed category, if we get lost on this one I'm retiring.
Train with the paddles, start small and grow, a good paddle to start with is the Speedo Tech (small version). The cadence of your stroke will decrease but the power of your stroke will increase (hopefully!) a bit like going up a gear when riding a bike. Once your shoulders are used to the paddle do some timed 400m sets with and without paddles to make sure you are actually going faster with the paddles! If not then either change the way you use them or don't bother with them at all.
For my first two OtillO Uto races I didn't use hand paddles, then I tried with the small version of the Speedo Tech paddle for OtillO Engadin. They grip the water well and being small didn't put too much extra strain on my shoulders. I have now worked my way up to my current favourites the TYR Catalyst 2 paddle.
I have found I can go up to around 10% faster over 400m. I also believe it has improved my stroke technique. Be mindful of the shape of the paddle and it's movement through the water, you don't want to waste strokes with slicing and "wobbling" the paddles through the water. Using hand paddles is a great opportunity to slow your stroke down.
Of course always remember the principle of streamlining for efficient swimming.
It's now 3 years since I first tried paddles and only now do I feel completely comfortable with them so give them time and start small. It is unlikely that you will instantly love them... try a little patience.
Many swimruns take part in exposed sections of sea and lakes so do some training with the paddles in windy conditions and swell, get used to handling them in waves and rough water. You may want to use smaller paddles if conditions are particularly rough - test, test, test.
Recently Seal blades asked me to test their product. Originally designed for surfers, they may be worth giving a try for swimrun. They feel better than expected in the water and they didn't put any unexpected strains on my shoulders in testing.
For now I'll be sticking to my TYR paddles for racing. One day I look forward to trying FRANK PADDLES, a carbon fibre hand paddle.
Are you a swimmer or runner who wants to experience more of the world that you are journeying through? You may be considering trying a multi-sport event. Of course triathlon is huge, most folks understand what it is and naturally try to put swimrun into the same category. But swimrun is so much more than “triathlon without a bike”. Here I look at the advantages swimrun has over triathlon.
You can just turn up on the start line and go, you don't have to put your bike in transition, faff around with changing shoes, get told off if you take your helmet off too quickly, or fix a puncture. In swimrun a transition is simply getting out of the water and running or getting into the water and swimming, as you are.
Although there is an array of kit for swimrun it's up to you what you take as long as whatever you take you finish with (most races expect you to wear a wetsuit, swim hat, race bib, and something on your feet). Hand paddles, pull buoys, towing and flippers(!) are all optional extras. If you enter a triathlon abroad or at home there is a certain amount of bike faff. Whether it’s attaching your bike to a car, or the expense and hassle of bike boxes on aeroplanes. If I go to a swimrun abroad I can fit all my gear into my carry-on luggage and can share transport/ accommodation costs with my race partner.
Triathlon is more predictable than swimrun, and hence less interesting. Swimrun was "invented" by adventure racers, the best swimruns are set in wild places - think mountains, lakes, coastal paths, ocean, archipelago, trail running, away from tarmac. Race Director’s plot engaging routes through nature and are not restricted by the set structure of triathlon. Most triathletes know how long it takes them to swim 1.5k, cycle 40k, and run 10k so they can predict fairly accurately how long a race will take them. Predictability is far from adventure. There’s a general feeling in swimrun races of the pure joy of completing an adventurous journey through nature with your race partner, rather than achieving a PB.
You may well find yourself swimming in what the International Triathlon Union (ITU) would deem as too cold or too rough. For example the ITU states that if water is less than 12 degrees the swim is cancelled, if this was applied to swimrun then one of the best swimrun races, OtillO Uto, simply wouldn’t happen.
Why is this OK? As a swimmer what’s one thing you don’t want after a cool swim? Wind chill. Cycling is one sure-fire way to achieve wind chill whatever the weather. Running, or even walking, in neoprene is a sure-fire way to generate heat. You can also get a hug from your partner.
In swimrun the swims may alter, but they don’t get cancelled.
If you are looking at IRONMAN distances most people will be sore and stiff for several days post-race. Do a swimrun and your legs are almost fine the next day. Even though often you run near marathon distances you don't feel marathon sore. For me the last 5 miles of a marathon are super-grim, and the next day walking down stairs is comical. After a swimrun I feel like I could train the next day. Swimrun feels better for the body.
Why is recovery so quick? It could be to do with the runs split up into sections combined with some cooling and relaxation effects on the legs during the swims. In addition most swimruns have run sections on trail/softer terrain and don't involve running on tarmac so pounding of the joints is less pronounced. Most people also run slightly slower on a swimrun which may also aid recovery. I think that the biggest factor is the multiple recovery times for your legs in (cool) water during the race.
Don't get me wrong, triathlon is great, and I love cycling but for me it is more of a stand alone sport. San Sebastian to Barcelona via the Pyrenees is what I'd like to use my bike for, not in between a swim and a run.
Simplify your racing.
This article featured in the Outdoor Swimmer magazine's May 2020 issue: