Breca Buttermere SwimRun

It didn’t hit me until the race brief. As I sat along side the girl I had only just met, who was substituting for my original partner who was injured, I felt a sudden knot of anxiety building in my stomach. My mind kept drifting back to the disabling cold of the waters in Glencoe from my previous SwimRun. But whilst on that occasion I was racing less than 20km, this time I would be doing the long course – 43km of alternating running and swimming. If I got that cold again, I wasn’t sure I would be able to finish. To add to that anxiety was the practicalities of racing with a partner I had never met. For SwimRun you w=must stay within 10 meters of your partner throughout the race or risk disqualification. But I had no idea how much faster or slower this girl would be than me at either swimming or running. For swimming it is important to know so that the stronger swimmer can swim in front, with a tow rope to the slower swimmer, and for running it can be frustrating if you are not well matched in pace as the slower runner can go off too fast and tire themselves out and the faster runner can become frustrated having to wait t=for their partner. This is fine between friends or partners who know this going into the race, but for us it was a big and important unknown.

After the race brief – where we were informed the water temperature in most of the lakes was around 16 degrees – a vast improvement on the 8 degrees of my last race, we went for a mandatory get-to-know you dinner. We compared events that we had entered and while we discovered that we had a very similar endurance athlete mentality and spirit, I had the sinking feeling that Penny was going to turn out to be quite a bit quicker than me both at swimming and at running. After dinner we drove to our hostel where we had beds in an old-fashioned 10-bed female dormitory. THe hostel had a spectacular view, with our window overlooking Derwent Water which would be our final two swims the following day.

Sleeping in a dorm the night before a big race is not ideal, but thanks to my ear plugs and eye mask I woke up reasonably refeshed at 6.30 the next morning. I had laid out all of my kit the night before and so it was a reasonably quick process to get changed, packed up and head down for a quick breakfast. THough I’m not sure us stripping out bed sheets at this time in the morning was overly popular with our room mates…

At breakfast we met another team of two brothers who would be competeing as their first SwimRun event. We didn’t know then, but these brothers would become our frequent companions as we made our way around the course, and their kind offer of an energy gel halfway up the mountain section would end up being the thing that saved our race.

We arrived nice and early to the finish line. We would all park here and then be taken by bus to the start. I had made the error of not buying any coffee for the mrning so I spent the time alterantively trying force gloopy poridge down my throat and deserately searching for cofeine. After an unseuccesful coffee search I grabbed some bags of sweets and chocolate as a subsitute and it was time to board the coaches for a worryingly long drive to the start line.

When we arrived we were all bundled off the coaches to stand around for 20 minutes in the overcast July morning with gale force winds causing us to hudle close together for warmth. As the pre-race excitement mounted people busily set about their last minute preparations whilst the photographers snapped up all the pre-race excitement. After what seemed like a freezing age, people bagan almost of their own accord to huddle into a starting group. 200 people in wetsuits, swim caps and trainers standing in a wet field in Northern England. We were lucky not to be carted off!

Penny and I chose a starting spot a bit behind the speedy looking front-runners, as we didn’t want to get carried away in any sprinting off the start line. The course set off straight up a hill, which turned a lot of corners but never really seemed to end. There were wa few short sharp sections of descent, but we ran pretty high for the first 3km, before a steep and technical descent to the first swim. We managed to edge ahead of a few team here, including two female teams, and entered the water in a reasonable position. But the firs swim seemed to take longer than expected. Penny wasn’t used to swimming with hand paddles , or with a tow rope so I suspect this slowed things down. We were overtaken again on both sides though we had no idea by whom or how many. COming out of the first swim I was pretty dizzy and unsteady on my feet as we began the second running section, this time f=more than 5mk to the next swim. This pattern continued for the next few sections, we would pick off a few teams on the runs, and be passed by a few others on the swims. But overall we were holding our own and were comfortably in front of the middle of the pack. Things got a bit tricky at around the 14km mark as we took on our first big ascent. Climbin up to about 400m with some false summits and undulating ups and downs my legs started to get pretty tired. I had been trying to keep pace with Penny for the earlier sections, and my recent lack of training was starting to show. We slowed to a walk for the steeper ascents, and to our relievf so did most of the teams around us. We didn’t drop too many places on the ascent, but the effort was definitely starting to take its toll on my body.

As a particularly fast descender, I took the opportunity to hammer the steep descent from the final summit. Penny kept pretty close behind and managed to catch up again on the flat sections. Once again we approached the swim in a pretty good position, but unfortunately the impact of this speedy descent along with the tough terrain underfoot would soon start to make itself known. On the failry flat section following the next swim I started for the first time to struggle to match pace with Penny. My right knee was starting to twinge and my legs felt leaden. We had about 3km to run before the last short swim leading up to the mountain section. I managed to stumble round at a reasonable pace and we didn’t get caught by too many teams. We enteres the water at the same time as the 3rd place finishers of the sprint, and as we came out of the water we were gently directed away from their very appealing finish line w=by race director Ben, and up a hill to our next aid station. The salted potatoes promised at this aid station had been drawing me on now for at least the last hour, and they didn’t dissapoint. As unnapealing as cold new potatoes smothered in table salt might be at any normal time, at that moment they seemed heaven sent. I demolished about 8 potatoes, took a bar for the hike up the mountain and we were off – off to faceour 56% incline and a 14km mission across the high fells. The first part of the ascent was easy going, but about 10 minutes in we were faced with a sheer incline which looked almost vertical. As my calves screamed at me to stop, I pushed myself onwards. I was walking as fast as I could on my tired and rapidly declaring themselves as injured legs, but it wasn’t enough to keep pace with Penny, who glided ahead mountain-goat like up the slopes.

It was awful. I think that sums up the misery of that long, never ending ascent. The worst part for me was that I lost any ability to be cheerful. Normally I am one of those sick souls who maintains a sense of houmour and vague enjoymenet of life through the worst of physical endurance. But not this time. I was cold, tired and incredibly sore – and I was miserable about it. The worst part came after we crested the first summit (first of many) and I discovered that I was so sore I couldn’t even run down hil – normally my piece du resistance. I got colder, and more miserable and, as Penny raced off to try and attain the summit before her Garmin died, and each of the kind souls who encouraged me on gradually passed ahead of me, more alone. I have never in my life considered quitting a race. Not even when I have had injuries midway through train marathons or other disasters, I have always taken it as inevitable that I will finish no matter how slowly. But in that cold, painful, isolated moment I started to seriously doubt whether I would be able to make it to the end. Even if I managed to get my self across this interminable ridge line, I wasn’t sure I would be able to descend it. And if I could, I was too cold to contemplete the 600m and 900m swims that still lay ahead.

As I started to contemplate how I could even manage to drop out of the race if I wanted to – there weren’t any aid points or marshals up on the ridge line – the brothers from the hostel limped past us again. They must have noticed how awful I was looking – as I think by this point Penny has taken pity on my poor knees and was towing me up what would turn out to be the last ascent – and insisted that I take two of their energy gels. I’m not a fan of gels at the best of times and right then I felt so nauseated I started to refuse. But when I discovered they were salted caramel flavour I became a little intrigued. i opened it immediately and stopped to wash it down with some water from a stream – at which point another kind soul offered me the last of his electrolyte drink. (SwimRun people really are the best). A few minutes later as the gel entered my stomach I becan to realu=ise I was ravenously hungry. I fished out a bar I had hidden in a pocket and wolfed it down. Distracted by the pains in my knees and ankle I hadn’t noticed that I was becoming hungry and low on energy. About 15 minutes later as the sugar began to reach my bloodstream I began to feel more positive, if no less sore. We limped forward as fast as I could manage and even managed to run the flat sections. As we approached our final descent we heard some female voices behind us and turned to discover a female team beginning to gain on us. This was the final motivation for me to switch back to endurance metality, put the knee pain in the box to be dealt with later and we managed to run the entire descent and all the way to the final aid station.

After shovelling in a few more potatoes and orange segments, and secreting those damned delicious salted caramel gels around my wetsuit for a later date, we we off again. We now had just over 1km to our 600m swim, a short 300m island crossing, a 900m swim and then a 900m run to the finish line. We could do it, we both started to finally believe it. As Penny’s 3rd wind kicked in and I struggled along behind her we knew we were not going to let the female team behind us pass us – whatever it took. We had absolutely no idea by now how far back we were in the pack – certainly a huge number of male and mixed teams had passed us on the ridge line. But we started to pick them off again as we struggled to the finish.

The final swim was tough, as the waters were choppy from a passenger boat that steams around the lake taking out tourists. THe waves were alternately smasshing my face up against Penny’s trainers and yanking me back so the rope went taught. For a long time the barely visible exit marker and spectator crown remained very much in the distance. But eventually they managed to grown in size, and soon we were struggling to stand up out of the water and beginning our last run back to the finish. As groups of people applauded and the cutest kids encouraged us on, we were suddenly turning the corner to enter the car park from this morning. THen bless their souls, it was a welcome descent to the finish line where I found myself bend double and in tears. I had done it. What hadn’t seemed possible a few hours ago was now history. I hugged the girl who I had met only yesterday and who had endedup dragging me aorund large sections of the course. Now the next question is – where’s my cider?

Big thanks to the team at Breca SwimRun who put on a really great, challenging and well organised event. Check out their website if you are interested in their upcoming challenges!