The beginnings of something special
Swimruns are growing in popularity but still quite rare in the UK. Breca was founded in 2015 and are now the sport’s leading name and this year have events in Buttermere, Jersey, Coniston and the inaugural race in Gower which is where Quirky Races’ Chris was heading but for reasons outside of his control he nearly didn’t make it to at all as he explains;
Breca Swimrun is a pairs event. I had signed up with a friend who a month before had picked up a shoulder injured which forced him to pull out and left me looking for a new partner. Several avenues were explored but all of which had come to a dead end and with hope lost and the acceptance that this event wasn’t going to happen for me, with just 5 days until race day an email dropped into my inbox from Breca’s race director Ben. He had just been contacted by someone else looking for a partner. A couple of emails, a Facebook friend request and a phone call later and ‘team thrown together’ was formed.
It’s probably not ideal preparation to only meet the person at race registration who you’re about to take on an event with that involves 40 KM of running over 1,800 meters of elevation and 6.5 KM of swimming in the sea with 16 transitions but that was what we were dealing with.
My new partner Jon had told me he would just be happy to finish and decried himself as a plodder but it didn’t take me long to realise he was playing himself down. As we sat on the coach that took us from Mumbles pier (where the finish was) with all the other competitors on the way to the start line Jon casually dropped into conversation a list of events he’d done including several Ironmans, a 50 mile ultra on the same route we were about to face and a channel swim amongst others. This may have been daunting to many but all it did to me was add more fuel to my already fiercely burning fire of excitement. I knew this was going to be an epic day but the scale of which I hadn’t yet realised.
The race started on Hill End which although still quite picturesque was nothing compared to what was about to come. As the name suggests it was a vertical run before hitting some treacherous rocky terrain with lead us to the first swim. Although I’ve done plenty of open water swimming it’s all been in lakes so as we made the final scramble to the sea I was feeling quite apprehensive and rightly so. This wasn’t any regular sea swim, this was in waters that were so dangerous due to it currents that a warning had been put out prior to the event advising that anyone caught attempting to train in this would be at a real risk to their life and would be banned from this and all future Breca events. Added to the already significant challenge was that we would be swimming against the tide.
This was the rudest of awakenings for yours truly and I must admit I found it really tough and was questioning if I’d be able to complete this event if I was struggling this much this early on. One thing I will say though is that despite the rather worrying warning about this particular swim and although the waves were seriously choppy I never felt at risk. There were safety personal in canoe boats close by here and on every swim section and having someone close to you at all times is exactly why this event is done in pairs. As an extra safety measure every participant also has to carry a whistle to alert of any dangers.
Once back on dry land Jon put my mind at ease by assuring me the hardest swim was out of the way and once we reached the iconic Worm’s Head which is the most westerly tip of Gower we’d have the wind with us for the remainder of our journey to the finish line.
It was more hazardous running on rocky ground first though as we made our way over the naturally formed ‘Devil’s Bridge’ along the stunning peninsular before reaching the head and turning back. I may not be the best swimmer by any means but I do consider myself to be a pretty competent runner but this was super technical. Described by the race director as ‘a challenge even for experienced skyrunners’.
The next swim was a carmer one and then although very hilly the running settled down to more regular trail for what was the longest singular section at 8.2 KM. Just as I was putting my earlier fears behind me another choppy swim segment arose. At ‘only’ 0.7 KM it should have been over fairly quickly but in these waters it seemed to go on for an eternity but the biggest tests were still to come.
The Oxwich point to Oxwich beach swim was the longest of all advertised at 1.1 KM. It was also around cliffs meaning for the first time so far you couldn’t see the red flag you were heading for. Psychologically this made things harder put physically the swells and shifting tide made the going so so tough and increased the distance. This was by far the hardest swim I’ve ever done and although it was a lovely day with the sun beaming down so strongly at certain points that I developed some rather unfetching tan lines, as time went on I could feel myself getting colder and colder to the point that once finally on the sand some 56 minutes (and 1.8 KM!) later I was shivering.
During this section I was also becoming more uncomfortable by the stroke due it my wetsuit rubbing against my upper arms and back. It meant I was having to pull the suit down to the waist for every run and dreaded putting it back on each time we reached water. The pain got worse as the event went on but all I could do was try to block it out and get on with it. It left me with some nasty friction burns which will teach me never to buy a cheep wetsuit and wear it for the first time on race day.
It was just two and a half kilometres of flat beach running to the next transition which was bad news for me but music to Jon’s ears as he was thriving on the manic conditions that the South Wales ocean’s were throwing up for us and that was a huge blessing as I honestly don’t think I’d of survived the next swim without him.
As we reached Three Cliffs Bay the marshals informed us to be very carful and swim well out from the huge cliffs we were tasked with getting around. The waves were crashing in on us like a scene from The Perfect Storm movie and I wouldn’t have even considered entering these waters in my wildest of moments had this not been an organised race situation.
Reluctantly, following Jon’s lead and instructions I went for it. We were against the tide to begin with and I didn’t feel as though I was getting anywhere but slowly but surely progress was being made. I was very relieved that another team were also taking on this epic endeavour at the same time as us purely for safety in numbers reasons.
An extremely nervy 26 minutes and 1 KM later the jeopardy was over and I could enjoy some more breathtaking views and let my heart rate settle back down on an 8 KM run knowing that just three more swims remained and we were most definitely over the worse of it.
Arriving at Caswell Bay it was another rocky scramble down to the sea and this was again a swim that felt like it took so much longer than it actually did. 36 minutes seemed like an age but once on Langland Bay it was just 5 KM of running and only 300 meters of swimming left with four transitions.
We had set off at 10AM and it was now approaching 6PM so it had been a long and tiring day and it was a great feeling to know the end was approaching. The penultimate swim was short and the water was relatively still, ‘If only they’d all been like that’ I joked to Jon as we clambered up the bank back on to the costal path.
We had kept our running at a good consistent pace throughout and we were still managing to maintain it although we were having to take regular stops by this point for Jon to heave up all the saltwater he’d inadvertently swallowed. He’d spent much or the day waiting for me to complete the swims so I didn’t mind this one bit. After all this is a team event and you take the rough with the smooth. We both had good and bad spells that we helped each other through. You can only be as good as your partner and although I hadn’t picked mine I was more than pleased with who I’d ended up with.
Back in the water for the final time this was just a token swim to finish on but although the remaining running was also minimal it was by no means easy. It was fitting that this event would end with a crazy descent down a cliff face before a joyful skip across the sand and a climb up some steep steps to bring us back onto Mumbles Pier and 8 hours and 12 minutes after starting this epic journey we’d completed it.
Nearly 100 teams started, 30% of whom didn’t make it to the finish and Jon and I had arrived home in 34th place. Not bad under the circumstances.
Breca Swimrun Gower put me out of my comfort zone more that any other event I’ve ever done but I’m so glad I did it. It’s proof that taking risks pays off. Fear can be a good thing and you are capable of things beyond your expectations. It’s given me an amazing experience I’ll never forget, confidence in my swimming I never had and perhaps best of all a partner who in the space of 24 hours went from being a stranger to a true friend. We may not see each other often in the future but Jon and I will always have the bond that completing an event this special creates. I would recommend anyone searching for a true challenge to look up what Breca have to offer.