Should you do a notoriously difficult endurance race with a dicky foot and a last-minute change of buddy?
So, let’s get the basics out of the way, what is this swimrun thing? Well, Breca Gower, specifically, is a 42 km endurance race from the bottom of Rhossili beach in Wales’ Gower Peninsula along the coast to Mumbles. That’s broken down into 37 km of off-road running and 5 km of sea swimming, separated into nine runs and eight swims. You compete in teams of two, remaining within 10 metres of each other at all times, and you swim and run in the same kit, ensuring that whatever you start the race with, you finish the race with. Yes you swim in your trainers, yes you can have a pull buoy and hand paddles, and yes you can get special wetsuits you can run in.
It was invented in the archipelagos of Scandinavia and brought to the UK under the banner of Breca by Ben de Rivaz who was so desperate for the sport to reach the UK that he created his own brand. It’s still a fairly niche sport, but it draws endurance athletes from all over the world because, frankly, it’s awesome. The courses are seriously hard, but they are run in such beautiful places that if you want something more than a speed test, something that challenges your mind as well as your body, you are guaranteed to love it.
In 2018, the “Dancing Queens”, my mate LL and I, embarked on our first race. We were one of only three ladies teams at Breca Gower 2018 and came second. We were hooked, and as soon as registration opened, we signed up for 2019.
The year didn’t start well when I damaged my foot at the final cross-country of the season. I have since battled with either Plantar Fasciitis or Posterior Tibial Tendonitis—something with a complicated name that basically means my foot has hurt constantly for months. I completed the Forestman Half (a 70.3 triathlon) in May, but the off-road half marathon took 30 minutes longer than usual and was not pleasant. Since then the pain has gradually lessened, but I’ve not run more than six miles in one outing since.
Then double disaster struck, LL’s Achilles got very angry. Decision time. Do we defer until 2020? The hotel refused to refund our booking. Do we both do it anyway, both injured, and just struggle our way around? We are both mentally tough enough, but is it wise? Swimming is not a problem, but then swimming isn’t really the difficult bit, is it? LL eventually made the sensible decision and retired her place.
Apparently i’m not that sensible.
Cue the super sub: my mate V stepped in. Like me, V thinks the only problem with triathlon is that bit in the middle when they make you get on a bike for hours, and he’s been chafing at the bit to do a swimrun for a while. So without even blinking, he signed on. A new buddy also meant a new team name was required: “The King and the Princess” entered the swimrun universe. [And in case you’re wondering, I’m not the princess.]
A few hastily cobbled together team training sessions and some new kit later and we were on the start line for Breca Gower 2019. We’re both Ironmen, I’d at least done the race before, how hard could it be?
It was 9 am on Sunday 14 July, it was sunny and warm and there was a field of about 90 teams gathered on the coastal path. The camaraderie at the start was brilliant, everyone was extremely up for what was about to happen. There was a bit of banter and a quick countdown and we were off.
The race started with a fairly brief run section, towards the promontory of Worm’s Head at the southern end of Rhossili beach. We jogged along the coastal path before hitting a downhill section towards the water, over some rocks. There were a few teams tethered together and I doubted their decision, being attached to someone else whilst clambering over rocks would make me very anxious.
We hit the water for swim one, about 500 metres over to Worm’s Head itself, but I forgot to move my pull buoy between my legs and had to flail about a bit to move it around. I kept to V’s right, as that’s the side he breathes to, and with the field still clustered together and everyone wearing the same red hats and number vests it’s difficult to keep an eye on your buddy. I needed him to see me. We were fine though, we’re ok at the swimming bit. Our pals said we looked super synchronised in training. It was just the run training that had been a bit (read very) sketchy.
It was a clamber up onto the Head whilst everyone was still very eager and jostling for position. V, who reckons he spotted a dead shark on the rocks, is relatively new to this off-road running malarkey, and I’ll admit my memory had mellowed the terrain marginally so perhaps I hadn’t prepared him enough mentally for it. He did an awesome job though, particularly as his goggles caught on a rock, holding him back and nearly snapping before he freed himself.
We just about managed to appreciate the incredible views of the Devil’s Bridge, an impressive natural rock formation, before deciding it was more sensible to keep our eyes on our feet and plough on.
Unlike the previous year, when we’d gone over the rocks but come back over the freshly exposed shore, this year the tide wasn’t far enough out and we did an out and back over the same treacherous, jagged ground. We were both pretty relieved to get back onto the mainland undamaged.
The water entries to the next two swims were again more hazardous than I remembered. The first had us clinging to some rocks and jumping over gaps that felt a little too wide even for my 5’8” frame. Perhaps I should add some long jump to my future swimrun training schedules! A guy behind me told me to take a leap of faith. I obeyed. It was not my favourite bit of the day. The second involved scrabbling over a long stretch of rocks covered in the remains of tiny, but very sharp, barnacle shells. Much later, when I inadvertently washed my hands with sanitiser at the finish, I’d find they were covered in tiny cuts as a result. Ouch!
We reached checkpoint 1 with only 30 minutes to spare until the cut-off, which was alarming.
On the second swim V got up close and personal with some sea life. Thinking he’d accidentally swiped another swimrunner with his hand paddle he looked up, only to find no one near him in the water. A quick glance down revealed he’d paddled a particularly sturdy barrel jellyfish. Thankfully my own jellyfish encounters were minimal, there were definitely more in the water in 2018.
By checkpoint 2 we were an hour inside the cut-off, which was a tad more reassuring.
We played cat and mouse with a few other teams, passing them on the swims, only to be caught again later on the runs. The terrain was not great for maintaining any sort of pace, particularly with a lack of run fitness and concern over whether my foot would hold out until the end.
By checkpoint 3 we were 90 minutes inside the cut-off and now fairly confident we’d get to the finish without being timed out. Phew!
Reaching the halfway point on Oxwich beach should have felt like a major triumph, but it had taken a long time to get there and V looked like he might be having a sense of humour failure. I told him we’d definitely done the hard bit. He didn’t look amused.
The sand along Oxwich beach was not pleasant to run on and there were quite a lot of dead jellyfish washed up in the shallows. That’s always a joy to see when you’re about to hop in for another swim.
Then we hit the sand dunes. It says a lot when they didn’t actually seem that bad, compared with what had come before. They’re a bugger on the legs though, especially tired, under-trained legs.
Did I mention it was hot? We made sure to hydrate at every feed station, and to re-apply sunscreen. In 2018, I’d relied on my 10-hour P20, but it turns out even that miracle concoction isn’t swimrun proof.
The final 10 km found us flagging. We would run the well-kept paths, but everything else we walked. The saving grace was the swims. Although we were tired, we pushed on and calm seas allowed us to stay ahead of two particularly tenacious ladies behind. They would turn out to be the third women’s team from 2018, who had finished just five minutes behind me and LL, so we were in excellent company.
The final run through Underhill Park to the finish line was an incredibly welcome sight. We held hands, acknowledged the congratulations of the crowd, many of whom had finished the course themselves, potentially hours ago, accepted our medals and gave Ben (the owner of Breca) a big finish-line hug.
Never think you can just turn up to an event like Breca Gower, it’s brutal. You need to be a decent open water swimmer and to have buckets of endurance for the difficult off-road running. A healthy dose of courage wouldn’t go amiss too. You also need a good buddy. It’s not just important you are fairly equal on the swims and runs, I think you need a strong friendship. You need to be capable of spending time together in trying circumstances. It’s a long and gruelling day out. However, it’s also glorious and you will share that experience with your buddy forever. I have been incredibly lucky to find two awesome people to compete with at the Gower and would happily undertake any swimrun, however arduous, with either of them again.
As for whether you should do something like this when you are knowingly injured. Well, at the end of the day, we got around within the cut-offs, relatively unharmed, and didn’t shame ourselves. I have no regrets. If anything, it’s a healthy reminder to work on my strength, rehab my injuries properly, and be proud of my mental resilience.
You’ll need to ask V what he thought about it all!
Images courtesy of Breca and V