Great British Adventures Swimrun - With Pete Woodward
In the next in the series of Great British Adventures, Pete Woodward heads to the English Lake District for a new style of amphibious race.
Adventure sports have exploded over the last decade with people looking for bigger and more exciting challenges to test themselves against. One of the most exciting new formats is Swimrun, a concept born in Sweden where the official brand is called ÖtillÖ. A whole race format has evolved from a late-night in a bar on the Swedish archipelago. Two teams of two made a bet and raced each other across the vast collection of islands from one end to the another, running further than a marathon distance over the islands and swimming between them in a continuous race. More than 15 years later, the concept has followed IKEA and meatballs to become a great Swedish export and this original route hosts a World Championship with qualifying events around Europe. There are now several races established in the UK, with an official ÖtillÖ brand race on the Isles of Scilly and other major races in the Lake District and Scotland.
My brother, Andy, and I grew up swimming and running from an early age, and tackling one of these races has been on our list for some time. With Andy’s first child due to arrive early in the year, we were finally prompted to schedule a trip before racing took a lower priority than changing nappies and midnight feeds. We submitted a late entry to the Coniston race in the autumn and started to think about training. The race format is for teams of two to race together and continuously, with no triathlon-style transition areas. This means swimming in trainers and running in a wetsuit, which takes some getting used to. I was reasonably confident that I could hold my own on the running sections but, with Andy having raced at the European Triathlon Championships in Glasgow earlier in the summer, I was equally certain that I needed to work on my somewhat rusty swimming skills to avoid being left in his wake. A few weeks of charging up and down the South Downs in my wetsuit and bobbing around the Channel in my trainers eschewed. After a long drive north, we were as ready as we were going to be.
Breca are the UK leader in Swimrun and offer events in iconic British locations as well as New Zealand for those looking for inspiration further afield. We chose the last race of the season in Coniston and with the autumn colours providing a golden backdrop, water temperature was the topic on everyone’s lips. The race instructions recommended a wetsuit suitable for 10 degrees Celsius. Andy and I had both been swimming in the sea without a wetsuit to prepare as much as we could. The English Lakes are notoriously chilly, though, and to steel ourselves we attempted to add a little to our fat reserves with a pre-race pasty in Grasmere.
After a well-organised race briefing, we boarded the bus to the start and as the beautiful scenery scrolled by, our heads drooped in the warm, rubbery fug of nervous chatter and Neoprene.
The race totals 18km of running and 3km of swimming, broken into short sections with a total of ten transitions. A tough uphill start soon thinned the field, and as we pushed through the brown ferns under clear blue skies, glimpses of the dark water of Windermere flashed through the wooded slopes of the fell. I pushed hard through the woods, with Andy tucked in behind, as we settled into the rhythm of the race. Out of the woodlands at full speed, along a short grass bank towards a flag, goggles down: splash! In an instant, we were launching out into the dark, cold waters, between yachts and heading for a gap in the islands ahead. Our unanswered question about water temperature was answered immediately with brain freeze. We both surged forwards trying to generate some heat as the icy water crept into our wetsuits. Andy is by far the stronger swimmer, and as he smoothly glided forwards I pulled hard to keep his feet visible. A stiff breeze meant the water was surprisingly choppy and short waves slapped us on the head as we threaded the gap between two small islands and adjusted our course for a flag on the distant shoreline.
Staggering up the beach with goggles on our heads, we shared a wry smile before splashing through the shallows and pushing into the next run. The team format is a great way to share the race and the shock to the system that was Windermere gave us a moment to chuckle about later. Sloshing water from wetsuits and with bandy legs adjusting to once again being upright, we staggered past a growing crowd of walkers curious about the runners emerging from the lake. With a long flat section of woodland track, we pushed on to make up as much time as we could. An inspired race route clips bays on the edge of the lake with short swims and stunning shoreline runs before heading over the fells again towards Grasmere.
Working hard, we were relieved to reach the checkpoint where a selection of treats awaited us. Based in some of the most beautiful areas of the country, it is fantastic that Breca are heavily focused on minimising the impact of races on the environment. Racers carry their own cups to be refilled to avoid wastage. Having two young boys, I had supplied the team with two cardboard Tractor Ted party cups and after fishing out the soggy remains stuffed into our speedos we gulped down some squash before attempting to master the art of eating a pork pie on the run.
A long descent took us to Rydal Water, with a spectacular swim at the foot of Red Screes and Fairfield fell, and a winding run through the golden woods to the banks of the River Rothay. The last swim beckoned with a crossing of Grasmere lake from the woods towards the landing stages. My arms were fading and in the cold water, my hands were becoming claw-like. Struggling to keep my fingers together, I resorted to swimming front crawl with my fingers bunched into fists, and desperately tried to stay in Andy’s wake to gain a little tow from his efforts. The field was bunching up and, over one of the longer swims, the competition was strung out ahead and behind us, all furiously churning through the still waters towards the huge red tree on the opposite bank. Staggering onto the pebble beach, the route took in one last steep climb before sweeping into Grasmere village on quiet country roads to the party atmosphere at the Tweedies hotel.
We crossed the line together with broad smiles, happy memories and very cold hands. Heading for the large, heated luggage tent, we were already refining our plans for our next amphibious outing.