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 had the VW Transporter to take me there. We hugged then Alan was whisked away by the fixer.
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, will also adopt a re-usable approach at water stations. 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.
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. It's all great learning.
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, among other things these have the advantage of having the zip on the front. There are many run sections that you will want to unzip your wetsuit. The easier it is to do this the faster your transition will be. We can recommend the HEAD Aero which we reviewed here.
So wetsuit sorted - put it on and go for a run! An informative article on running in a wetsuit has been translated by our friends at World of Swimrun written by Swedish running coach Fredrik Zillen.
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.
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" adage is forever present. It's a bit of a "fixed mindset" adage... 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, I'll be writing an article on the benefits of towing in swimrun (and how it can be used in swim coaching) soon.
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.
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 sets of ten to twenty sets of 100m to 250m at 80% is a simple way to improve your swimming. 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 had a cold shower and jumped back in, just to mark the end/start of each "transition".
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 bed-time.
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.