I can’t remember which of our friends it was that first told us about SwimRun events. Whoever it was, you are a star! The Xterra swimrun in Norway on 22.8.2015 was the best day out ‘racing’ that I have ever had!
SwimRun was invented? discovered? in Sweden 10 years ago when the first outing of the famous Otillo race took place. We soon discovered that Otillo is incredibly hard to get into (as well as being one of the longest and toughest races in the SwimRun calendar, at 60km of running and 10km of swimming) so we looked around for alternatives. We quickly spotted the Xterra event, which had just had it’s first outing and the area it was held in looked quite spectacularly beautiful. It was also slightly shorter at 50km + 8km!
Before we could think too hard about it Steve and I had signed up (you need to compete with a partner, for safety!), and then started to worry! However, we had already decided to also race the inaugural Isoman event in England (an ‘equalised’ triathlon with 7 miles of swimming, 61 miles on the bike, and a full marathon) so we were easily able to switch the training load more towards swimming and running than cycling this year.
Ankle injuries however meant that I had had less run training than I would have liked, and Steve was still in pain even on race day.
We arrived in Havna, Tjome from Oslo a couple of days before the race via train, bus and a 5km walk from the bus stop (not the best set of instructions from hotel reception who had advised it was a 10 min walk so we needed the extra day to recover from hefting our luggage so far!). Of course almost the first thing we saw were Lion’s Mane jellyfish in the marina! A local contact had promised me they were only on the west coast of Norway, not the Oslofjord. Grrr….
It was fun to play ‘spot the athlete’ as people starting arriving and of course we bumped into the other Uk and Irish teams first as they had also arrived a little early.
Keen as mustard, we were first to register and get our race kit and trackers so we could be followed electronically throughout the event. The race briefing was at 7pm, and I have never seen such a lot of scarily fit people all in the same room. Wow, proper athletes! Then it was off to bed for a 2.00am alarm call and prerace breakfast before boarding the bus at 03.45am to the start just outside Tonsberg. It was pitch dark.Even when we arrived it was still pretty hard to see anything! The organisers did a final check of all the trackers (guess whose wasn’t working and had to be replaced?) and before we knew it we were off at 5am.
The first 2.5k was run at a controlled pace to keep everyone together but as soon as we reached the first swim the race was on. We hooked up our bungie cord so we would not get separated and off we went. We discovered pretty fast that we had made it too short (advice point #1 – check and practice with all your kit properly before race day!) as Steve’s hand paddles kept whacking into my feet. However the first swim was short and we were soon out for another short run. I hurriedly tried to lengthen the bungie a bit but on the next swim it was still a pain so we packed it away and ignored it for the rest of the race.
The sun rose on our left on the second (or third?) swim so we paused for a moment to take it all in. Around then Steve started faffing with trying to get his camera out of his Camelbak (now tucked tightly UNDER his race vest) and I got a bit tetchy for the first and only time (I did quite well on this race!) as I knew we would not be fast on this outing but I really didn’t want to be absolutely last!
The race course was really well marked out apart from a couple of places where it was only necessary to follow a coastline and swim entrances/exits were pretty clear on most cases, although brighter coloured flags would have been helpful in a couple of places. Similarly, the support boats/kayakers were all really helpful in advising of currents (which interestingly all seemed to be in the opposite direction to that advised at the briefing!) except in one case where we were advised to head to the right of the exit markers – no reason given – and this took us way off course and a longish swim back to where we should have been.
The stages flew past really quickly – the two lake swims made a nice change from the salty water – and it was less difficult than we had thought it would be to keep track of where we were.
Despite being novices, the time cutoffs were also not hard to achieve – I think we had 1.5 hours in hand at the final one at CP4 – and looking at charts in retrospect we actually were about half way down the field until some of the later stages with longer runs.
The penultimate run was labelled as 5k and it went on, and on, and on, at this point along quite a busy road, until I thought I had lost the will to live! I walked longer than I should have there because I kept thinking the turnoff must come soon and I didn’t want to miss it and have to retrace my steps. It ended up being almost 8k…. The final two swims were also interesting as, since it was now saturday lunchtime, there were just so many people whizzing around in boats and we had to be very aware of our surroundings. The kayakers were a huge help here as well.
The final swim took us right up to the jetties at the race hotel and a huge morale boost as the racers who had finished ahead of us were all out cheering everyone on. The last run was MUCH easier than the one before even although there was a little confusion around Toras fort as to which direction we were supposed to be going. I think I surprised Steve with my last final burst of speed.
The race director personally congratulated everyone at the finish line and bottles of beer were provided. I had the most amazing day out but still couldn’t really believe that we had actually succeeded. What a day!
- Startling a stark naked sunbather on Gaasoy island (I don’t think anyone had warned her about the race :))
- Local children out and about waving Norwegian flags and cheering us on
- Overtaking one of the faster UK teams early on in the race (they got us back later on when there was more running involved!)
- Running through the transition area of a completely different triathlon – glad they were all out on the bikes when we got there though.
- The finish line has to be in one of Europe’s most spectacular locations
- the pull of the tide was stronger than expected given that the tidal range is only 50-60cm!
- The rope-assisted climb out on Bolaerne island – there were about 6 of us trying to climb out and up over a slippy boulder – probably only about 10-15m – but with slippy shoes/rock and a stretchy rope it was a bit of a concern at the time.
What we learned:
- We LOVE swimrunning!
- However comfy your wetsuit, it is going to chafe at some point over 50km of running plus 8km of swimming! Lube everything. Swimming trunks do NOT make for an ideal baselayer – use longer shorts with no seams in tender areas.
- The basic Head swimrun ‘ Rough’ wetsuit was fine – I left the sleeves long which meant fewer jellyfish stings for me than Steve, who had cut his off. HOWEVER unless you move fast I am not convinced it would be warm enough for swims in colder water. We had 19-20C (in the water!) and glorious sunshine and still felt cool on the longer swims. I believe the more expensive wetsuits with a coated neoprene would be better for cooler events.
- You need to be able to ‘read’ the water to determine which way the current is going. It would have been easy to have been pushed off course.
- Practise more with the bungie / towrope. It needs to be exactly the right length to allow for efficient drafting but without the swimmers bumping into each other.
- There are special wetsuits available for swimrun from a number of manufacturers. Head were first on the scene and have a range available. Huub and Zone3 swiftly followed with more expensive options, but they do have some useful additional features like the external pockets in the Zone 3. In most pictures you see that racers have cut the arms and legs off to elbow/knee level respectively. Whilst I think you probably need to cut the legs, DO NOT cut off the arms straight away. In the UK we found it hard to train for more than 2 hours due to the cold water and leaving them long may allow extra jellyfish protection as well. Worth leaving that decision until you know more about race conditions. The swimrun wetsuits all offer front as well as back zips. In theory this allows you to easily take the top of the wetsuit down for longer runs. Not sure if this is terribly useful since there is a race vest over the top as well, but did do this on the final run which with race day temps of 25C+ did help reduce overheating. The front zips do however usefully allow you to stash things inside the suit rather than carry them in your hands.
- Shoes – we read a review on the Otillo website by the elite athletes which recommended Inov8 X-talon 212’s and Icebug Acceleritas. Although the former can be a little slippy on some wet rocks, the Icebugs apparently don’t drain as well and the writer recommended drilling holes in them. I went for the X-talon’s for comfort – and there was nowhere to try the Icebug’s – and they were great. Steve used some older Inov8 Mudroc’s and they were fine too.
- Hand paddles – we used Speedo Biofuse. Steve found that the straps kept coming detached so a bit of time was lost fixing them. Other people like the Finis Agility paddles but I find they give me cramp, and you would need to drill through these to add a wrist strap or thong so you don’t lose them. The advantage of the Finis ones is that they do give you somewhere to write the basic race details on. Hand paddles can be stowed down the front of your wetsuit or race vest when not needed.
- Pullbuoys – almost essential to counteract the drag from swimming in your shoes. It is not really feasible to take your shoes on/off 39 times during a race and stow them. So make 4 holes in your pullbuoy and thread them with 5mm bungie cord to hold it in place at the top of your leg while running.
- Towrope: basically a 3m or so length of 5mm bungie cord with a lightweight karabiner attached at each end. These then clip to loops at the front or back of the wetsuit allowing a stronger swimmer to ‘tow’ a slower one. Would have really helped us on the longer swims if we had got it right. Oops. Bear in mind that standard wetsuits don’t have these loops so you need to find another way to attach them (possibly using the straps on a waistpack?)
- Luggage – you need to carry maps, whistle, first aid dressings, possibly a compass, plus spare water and/or gels. Some manage to stuff everything inside their wetsuits (the swimrun ones have front zips for ease of access) but with Steve being diabetic we needed to have a little more in reserve. I used an OMM bumbag with 6-7L capacity, which compresses down but it was really a little big and didn’t drain too well after longer swims! Steve tried a small camelbak, which was fine but of course had access issues under the tight race vests. My personal opinion is that a smaller bumbag /waistpack would be ideal – I noticed some Scandinavian racers with what looked like stretchy ones – but haven’t found the perfect one yet.
Finally, a huge thank you to Tom Remman and the team at Xterra and Head for putting on such a fabulous event. The running is through all sorts of terrain – but maximum altitude is about 50m so no big hills! – and the support was amazing. Can’t wait to come back and race it properly!