Breca Coniston Swimrun Sprint 2021

Like everyone else in the swimrun world, I’d been putting race dates in my calendar for 15 months, moving them around as they were re-arranged due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, then deleting them totally when they were eventually cancelled or were just impossible to get to. So the idea that Breca were putting on some UK races and had opened up their sprint distances to solo entrants allowed me to get just a little bit excited. Now, by their nature, swimrun races are generally located in some beautiful spots, and the Breca events certainly live up to that hype with races in the Lake District, Scotland, and Wales (those are the ones on the UK mainland, you can also race with them in Jersey and New Zealand, I can but dream!), and so I faced a new problem. Yes, I could race, but could I get to the location on public transport and could I find accommodation when every man and their newly purchased lockdown dogs were booking up every beauty spot in the UK for their “staycations”?

I set off on Thursday (race day would be Saturday), one woman, and one rucksack rammed with swimrun and camping kit. I was slightly doubting my decision to have brought my super-sized ARK swimrun pull buoy, but if you’re in the community, you know it’s a magic bit of kit, especially when you’ll be racing in lakes but are used to swimming in the more buoyant sea, so I figured it deserved the extra space it took up in my rucksack. Who needed clothes anyway?

I split the journey, staying in London overnight and catching the train from Euston to Oxenholme in the Lake District on Friday morning. From Oxenholme I caught another train to Windermere and then hopped in a taxi to Rydal Hall, where I would be camping. It all went remarkably smoothly (especially if you’re my friend on Facebook and have followed six years of posts crammed with expletives about the failures of the great British rail network).

Rydal Hall itself is a Christian convention centre, but if you’re not religious, which I’m not, it’s also got beautiful gardens, a great campsite, a café and a bar. It’s also about 4 km from Grasmere, the base for the Breca Coniston Swimrun. I had to camp as everywhere else anywhere near my budget was booked up. I’d factored into the weekend that I would have to walk between the two and suck up the extra energy that it would take up before the race. At least I was finally getting to race.

Tent up, horse flies cursed—loudly and using some potentially very blasphemous terms, apologies—I figured I might as well suss out the route to Grasmere ready for the morning and register early.

Rydal and Grasmere are connected by a lovely footpath, called the Coffin Route—not creepy at all. It took about 45 minutes to walk it and there were some gorgeous views of Rydal water on the way. It also passes Dove Cottage, home for a time in the early nineteenth century to the poet William Wordsworth.

Registration was in the Grasmere Village Hall and very efficient. After I’d shown a nice marshal my kit and collected my number vest and swim hat, I had a little wander around the village, which is absurdly picturesque and therefore packed with tourists. I figured, rather than do my usual and walk around aimlessly for hours and then wonder why I’m knackered, I should probably head back to the campsite, shower, eat, join the race safety briefing via Zoom, and then get some kip.

It rained heavily in the night, but hey, it is the Lake District, one of the wettest spots in the UK, so not unusual. It had thankfully cleared up though by the time I needed to get up and get ready. I ate a tin of cold rice pudding (don’t you just love camping!), drank some water, grabbed all my gear and tramped off to Grasmere. I was nervous.

It drizzled, then turned slightly heavier, and then went back to drizzle again as I sorted by stuff at the kit drop and race finish at Tweedies Bar & Lodge. A nice man offered me his Vaseline when I realised I’d forgotten my Bodyglide…a phrase that must sound a bit rude to anyone outside of certain sports communities. And another nice man fixed my lasso knot on my pull buoy, which had come unravelled. The swimrun community is very friendly and infinitely helpful. I then bumped into Ian, who V and I’d met at the As Keen As Mustard events last year. Always good to spot a familiar face and nice to catch up on swimrun chat.

About 310 racers (121 teams, 66 solo entries) were masked up and bussed along the tiny, winding roads of the Lake District to the start at Braithwaite Hall. 

I was really nervous now. I’d led Söuthsea Swimrun in the Team Envol Big Battle in June and clocked up 230 km of running and 42 km of swimming during the month. In the nine days since, I’d rested, but also had my second jab and some dental work. I couldn’t decide whether I was super ready because of the excessive swimrun training, or about to blow up very badly. We’d soon find out.

It was finally time, we were off, a mass start straight uphill. I’d hung back, not wanting to get caught out going too fast at the start of the 21 km race. I hadn’t trained for the hills, I’d got so caught up in the Battle, which relied on distance, not terrain, that I thought powering uphill fast in the first few kms was probably not a sensible plan. Hanging back though meant I got caught in a logjam, losing vital time.

I eventually found some space and tried to get used to running with my tow float (mandatory kit for the solos) bouncing around at my hip. I’d latched it onto my belt with a carabiner, but it felt cumbersome alongside my big ARK Keel pull buoy.

I made up some time with a fast first transition, bombing down to the banks of Lake Windemere ready to swim, past a lot of inexperienced folk who were taking their time getting in. That felt pretty cool. Apparently 50% of racers were doing their first swimrun and many hadn’t yet added paddles and pull buoys to their race armory. I powered past a lot of swimmers, feeling pretty epic and very experienced in comparison.

Race photos by Route North

The lake swim was great, the temperature was perfect and the lack of current or waves slapping against my face made a nice change. And all the solo racers’ fluorescent tow floats in the distance made sighting a very easy task.

Next came a run alongside the lake. I chatted a bit with a lady from New Zealand and a guy who had borrowed all his kit, just to give the race a go. I played a bit of cat and mouse with some other solo ladies, passing them on the swims and being passed on the runs. A couple of them didn’t have cumbersome tow floats and I realised eventually they had something called a Restube instead, which sits folded in a pack on your waist until you need it, when you can inflate it with CO2 by pulling on a toggle. That seemed like a much better option. Damn, kit envy. 

Run four (of six, with five swims interspersed) was the hilly bit, a 6.57 km section that took in Loughrigg Fell. I ran most of this section with a men’s team who were also from somewhere pretty flat. One of them opened and closed most of the gates we came across, which was very gentlemanly, particularly during a race situation. I told you swimrunners were nice.

At the top of the fell there was a 50-feet scramble up some rocks, which was unexpected, but the view of Lake Windermere from the top was immense. One of the challenges of swimrun is to make sure you enjoy the views without tripping over the trail in the process. I very nearly came a cropper two or three times, and had an oddly fat knee come the end of the race which might have been the result.

By the time the final swim in Lake Grasmere came around I was once again cat and mousing, this time with a couple of men’s teams, one I’ll call GoPro guy + buddy, as he was managing to do the whole thing while also videoing it. But they didn’t have paddles, so I overtook them on the final swim.

I always seem to get a bit sad on the last swim, knowing it’s nearly over, surely the sign of an excellent sport. I ran as hard as I could from the lake back into Grasmere for the finish at Tweedies, not wanting anyone else to pass me at this stage, but equally having no idea where I was in the race. There were definitely three or four solo ladies ahead of me, because I’d sadly seen their backs as they’d run ahead of me. 

It turned out I crossed the line as the 6th lady, 24th overall. And the sun was finally shining.

Conclusion: Breca Coniston Sprint is a great race. The terrain is challenging in places, the swims are quite long, but also calm and really enjoyable. It was very well organised, particularly in our new Covid world, well supported and full to the brim with happy, friendly racers. I loved it.

What did I learn? 1. Restube may be the way forward if tow floats are mandatory kit. I did feel I faffed a bit with my regular tow float and it got in the way of my arm when I was running, which put me off my game a bit. 2. I should take a soft water bottle as well as using the on-course nutrition. I felt quite dehydrated by the second-to-last swim and I don’t want to take any more time than necessary at aid stations. 3. I can probably push myself harder than I think. There were only a few minutes between 3rd place and 6th, so I need to work on my competitive spirit!        

Afterword: The journey south was not so successful. Horrendous downpours caused terrible flash flooding in parts of London and my train, which should have arrived into Euston at 19:30, terminated at Watford Junction instead at about 22:30. Not terribly handy when you live on the south coast of the UK. I had to book a hotel in London and miss a morning of work before I finally made it home. Sodding trains.

Sarah King 

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