Having had a pretty crap 12 months containing the kind of family loss you’d normally experience over half a lifetime, including what seemed like endless piles of “sadmin,” I finally found myself with the headspace to think about racing another world series distance swimrun. I’d had my eye on Ötillö Cannes for a while; frankly, who wouldn’t want to race around the South of France in the middle of October! Warm seas, sunny days, endless patisserie, count me in. But, had the airlines calmed down since the summer and stopped cancelling people’s flights at the last second? I couldn’t cope with the idea of sitting in departures, first holiday drink in hand, only to be backtracked through security and told to come back another day, if at all. Fortunately, I’d recently read British ultrarunner Damian Hall’s book In It For the Long Run in which he talks about trying to be more eco-conscious with his sport and it gave me an idea: Why fly to Cannes when it is perfectly accessible from the UK by train? I could reduce my carbon footprint, and have an adventure at the same time.
So, on Thursday October 13, I hopped on a train to London, a tube to the office, where I strategically dropped my laptop for the return journey, strolled to St Pancreas, caught the Eurostar to Paris, tackled the metro to Gare d’Austerlitz, found my bunk on the overnight train toward Nice, and arrived, not entirely fresh as a daisy, approximately 24 hours later in Cannes. A quick Google and one very unscientific calculation later and I would guess that I used 46 kg CO2e rather than the 350 kg I’d have used flying, which has got to be better for the environment, doesn’t it? And, miraculously, it all worked perfectly and only cost me about £100, each way.
Feeling pretty smug about my successful journey, but also a little drained from having slept badly on my tiny bunk on the overnight train, I checked into the very fancy Hotel Martinez on Cannes’ famous Croisette, Ötillö’s race base for the weekend and a personal treat after the awful year I’d had.
Many may question how tough a swimrun course based in the home of a famous film festival on the French Riviera could really be, but they would be the uninitiated, Cannes definitely has a few surprises.
The world series course (32 km running, 8 km swimming, in 22 sections) starts on Île Sainte-Marguerite, a 15-minute ferry ride from Cannes. The start line itself is within the old fort (Fort Royal), which once imprisoned the legendary mystery prisoner, the Man in the Iron Mask. We had a short time to prep ourselves and make use of the fort’s facilities before gathering at its closed gates for our final briefing.
The race began when the gates were opened, and we set off for a lap of the island and its umbrella pine- and eucalyptus-lined trails. The first swim took us around the outside of the fort, before another short run led us to our second swim across to a second island (Ö till Ö indeed), Île Sainte-Marguerite’s smaller neighbour, the Île Saint-Honorat. As I arrived on the island, the leaders were hopping in to swim back. How to make a girl feel slow, huh!
Again there was a lovely forest trail run, this time around the island’s monastery. I was doing my best to make sure I made the first cut-off so didn’t actually notice the island was inhabited by monks. In the briefing we’d been advised to track between two buoys on the swim back to Île Sainte-Marguerite. It turns out we were being treated to a spot of ecotourism, swimming over the sculptures of the heads of six Cannes residents created by artist Jason deCaires Taylor, a new home for local sea life.
An almost 5 km run around Île Sainte-Marguerite took us to our first cut-off point at the start of the 1300 m swim back to Cannes. I was significantly inside, but it’s healthy to have a mild paranoia about the cut-offs and not get too complacent. This would be the longest swim of the race and as such required each team and solo racer to collect a safety buoy that we would then leave on the other side.
I set off pretty high on swimrun life, realising as is often the case with these events that I hadn’t paid attention to where I was supposed to be aiming for on the far shore. That’s when I caught a purple jellyfish inside my right elbow joint. I must have trapped the little bugger in the crook of my arm on the catch phase of my stroke, and let me tell you, it really didn’t like it. I let out a significant yelping noise at the shocking pain, looking back under the water to see what the hell had attacked me. I then spent a few moments swearing loudly and outrageously as everyone else just swam past, seemingly completely unaware of my pain. There wasn’t a lot else I could do, so I set off for the swim out, spending the next kilometre getting more and more paranoid that a bit of jellyfish was still attached to my arm and I was going to have an allergic reaction and die before I reached Cannes. Basically, it really hurt, but I also might be a bit of a drama queen.
Back on the mainland, after another quick run, and a short swim, a nice lifeguard, sat at the following swim out flag, rubbed some cream on my sting, which made it feel a teensy bit better. Bending my arm hurt though, thank god I only had another 30 km left to race, doh!
Then followed a 10-ish km run to the left of town as you faced Cannes. It passed along the Croisette, up through the shopping streets, and around historic, quieter bits of Cannes, much to the bemusement of Saturday shoppers. As I was heading out, the top male team were heading back, now about 8 or 9 km ahead of me. Insane speed. The small, packed streets of Cannes made it a challenge to spot the ribbons and markers of the route, and without a swimrun buddy to assist, I felt a little discombobulated at times. But I somehow managed to stick to the trail.
At the top of the hill, the course took us up and down parkland before sending us all the way back down to the sea again. To complicate the next swim entry we had to crawl under a concrete outlet back onto the beach, but were soon washing off the sand on the next swim.
The loop around the other end of the city involved a calf-destroyingly steep hike up an old funicular railway, a mad descent of a mostly dry but incredibly precarious river bed, and an odd little tunnel that was just big enough to fit a pull buoy-wielding swimrunner, before emerging back onto the coast to be faced with full frontal male nudity at the nudist beach, Eek. It’s always the old guys who feel the need to show off their wares, isn’t it?
The next swim was described in a number of ways by my lovely swimrun compatriots, but the words jellyfish and hell appeared most frequently. The lovely lady marshal at the swim entry suggested we swim slightly further out as jellyfish were floating along the coastline, close to shore. With the first vicious sting still firmly in my mind, I wasn’t overly keen to get in and attack this 1 km swim, but I wasn’t going to abandon the race now. I swam slowly and tentatively, eyes firmly up, scoping the sea in front of me. It was like a late 1980s Commodore 64 computer game, dodging the little bastards. God knows how I avoided them all, but I certainly wasn’t keen to get zapped again. Emerging at the swim exit I could see a mixed pair hadn’t been so lucky, the male swimrunner was hugging his sobbing partner. Her sleeveless wetsuit unfortunately hadn’t provided much protection from the stinging beasties.
The final 4 km of swimming and running was thankfully uneventful in comparison, and 6 hrs and 48 minutes after I’d started, I emerged, a very chafed, slightly sunkissed, slightly jellyfish kissed swimrunner, clambering ungainly onto the end of Hotel Martinez’s private pier to finish on the red carpet.
Basically, the Cannes course has literally everything going on. A brilliant, challenging, exciting day out. I loved it, even with the extra stresses of the angry sea life. For anyone interested in swimrun, but not sure about covering the world series distances, Ötillö also hosts sprint (12 to 15 km) and experience (5 to 7 km) distances at the same time as the longer events, so everyone can get involved.
This race report was originally posted on the blog Ich spreche ein bisschen deutsch.
Sarah King, 2022