I first came across the slightly mad cap sport of SwimRun after spotting some pictures of the famous OtillO race in Sweden in an article somewhere, about the world’s most extreme races. Something grabbed my attention, people emerging from the sea clad in shorty wetsuits with paddles and pull buoys, running across some pretty rough looking terrain onto the next swim with a team point to point format and a great background story. I knew I had to give it a go.
Fast forward to late 2014 and I hear rumours of a new event in Scotland, with the same team behind it that brought us the Celtman. Loch Gu Loch, 8km of swimming, 47km of running in a point to point race based around Loch Ness in the Highlands of Scotland. A good friend Stuart Macleod has also been out to OtillO this year, he’s done an event or two and from his reports I knew this SwimRun thing had to be done. Stuart agreed to race with me and show me the ropes, to be honest I could not think of anyone I would rather do the event with so it was amazing when he agreed. It was a long wait but Sep 26th came round soon enough.
I had a lot of fun along the way to the event trying different kit, techniques and getting lots of strange looks running around Ambleside or the Coniston fells in a wetsuit. Blair also set some interesting and challenging SwimRun specific swim sets for me, involving very little legs and lots of paddles. Part of the appeal is the sport is so new there really are not hard and fast rules about kit and training, it’s still developing but very quickly.
Team training wise, in true Half Arsed Cowboy fashion, me and Stuart had a quick chat on the phone a week before and then met on the lawn outside the Highland Club the night before the race, fully clad in race kit and went for a run. We figured the swim bit could wait for the morning, there would be 8km of it after all. I knew then we were in for an adventure and no matter what happened we would have a great day together, we both wanted to race hard but it was about the experience rather than the outcome, a good place to be as a team.
The race starts with a ferry ride to Urquart Castle on the shores of Loch Ness, a fitting start for the race. Stuart is a little disappointed we are not heading out on a stinky open topped fishing trawler, the ferry is a little comfortable for his liking and is even serving coffee. Pre-race banter is great and catching up with friends from various events and meeting others passes the time. Tales of 10 degree water fills the ferry, a piper greets us ashore as we head down to the water’s edge for the race start. I am one of the first to test the water, its cold but that’s what we signed up for. A 3, 2, 1 count down and the race is off!
I am a big fan of learning on the job, it’s hard to simulate the added pressure of racing in training so I am glad to get this one out the way at the start of the race! In SwimRun it is usual practice to use a tether for the swims, so you don’t lose your partner. Stuart got us a great start, going out hard but as we settle down the cord get wrapped around my wrist, due to the paddle on my hand I can’t remove it! I tug on the cord, we stop and I managed to get freed up. Pleased to say it’s the only time it happened, experiential learning usually does the trick.
We come out of the water and find out we are only 3mins back on the race leaders, a bit of a surprise as I think we expected more. The first run is 9km with a very gradual climb through a forest track, game plan is to run hard on all the long sections to make up for time lost on the swims. We soon find the front of the race, Ewan and Stuart, Bonnie and Graeme, the banter begins. The German team of Andre and Burkhard soon join us, everyone looks smooth and strong and it’s clear this is where the race is at. It stays close for the next 4hrs, all 4 teams are pushing hard, its great racing. Slowly but certainly hard won, me and Stuart open up a small gap, which grows on 16km run section. We know the stronger swimming teams are coming back at us on the swims so we have to suffer on the long runs to gain time, but all the teams could run too! We never felt safe and had to keep the pressure on.
The journey this race takes covers a vast variety of terrain and landscape, forest, trail, tarmac and all the Loch’s have their own character, rocky shores, bogginess and island crossings. It adds an extra dimension to share this this a team mate, me and Stuart are focussed, hurting but enjoying every minute of it. The marshals at swim exits/entry points and aid stations are doing an amazing job too. We also keep coming across a loud guy flying round in a white van blaring what I think is Michael Jackson music who gives us occasional but welcome abuse ;).
At Loch Tarf, the 2nd to last swim and only 7km from the finish line, after around 6hrs30 racing its good news to find out we have the gap we wanted, it’s still tight but should be enough if we keep the pressure on. The Loch Tarf swim is awesome, short swims visiting and crossing the various islands, rough ground and the feeling that the finish is near. It finishes with a 30-40m of bog snorkelling trip and I can’t help but smile when the legs cramp trying to get out. Now only have a 6km run and 1km swim left.
This is where the tale becomes interesting, tired but still pushing hard we miss a direction sign, heading the wrong way now. It’s a while before we realise the mistake, no course marking for a while and we get that sinking feeling that we have blown it. It’s ok though, we can just get the map out, sort it and get back on track. Stuart’s reaction as he gets our map out of my pack is telling, it’s wet, soaked and unreadable. We have no idea which way to head but can see the Loch below, just maybe we can get back on track if we head for it. The trod we are following soon turns into a steep, rocky hillside, no sign of any paths, but we are pretty much at the Loch’s edge. Running soon turns to walking, then clambering and we are starting to cool down rapidly. We pop out on the rocky shoreline and can see the finish, but it’s at least 3km away. The shoreline is so rocky and craggy that we try swimming, it’s quicker to move but too cold as we have lost all our heat. Soon a boat turns up and we are back on the opposite shoreline in a couple of mins, freezing cold but happy to not be clambering any more and trying to swim.
Not the end we would have wanted but the amazing thing is, it really does not matter. The best bit about this experience was racing with my team mate, sharing the highs and lows, suffering, smiling and working so well together in this amazing environment. So no matter what happens, you can’t take the best stuff away, we gave our all, missed a sign and that’s racing. We weren't in it for a t-shirt or medal so all’s good and we have a story to tell that’s way more interesting than the usual race report!
So near yet so far but smiling all the way to the end, as it should be. The Cowboys will ride again, just like in the films. J
Thanks to the Bonnie, Graham, Andre, Burkhard, Ewan and Stuart for the racing and smiles and congratulations to everyone who finished and attempted this tough race. Of course without the many marshals who gave up there time it could not happen and you guys made the adventure possible. I am sure this race will become a future must do extreme race in the future.
If anyone fancies a SwimRun adventure, there are some great events cropping up around the country so seek and you shall find.
Just a quick note I think important to add. The course marking was overall excellent and the event superbly professionally organised, me and Stuart were never in any danger and were very quickly located due to the GPS tracking provided by the race organisers.