swimrun

The One Where Breca Buttermere Broke Me

Posted on August 5, 2017. Filed under: breca buttermere, DNF, race report, race review, swimrun |

“We have instructed the marshals to strictly enforce cut-offs. No excuses. No exceptions”

I heard it but I didn’t think it was relevant. Why would it be? I’ve never even been close to a cut-off before. But I had never done Breca Buttermere before.

This is the race report I never wanted to write. I’m not sure where it’s going to go but my last post “When the Bullshit Dries Up” was a fortuitous and timely reminder to take responsibility; write this report with the dignity that shows this amazing race the respect that it deserves.

This race pushed me beyond my limits. Whether it was preparation, or the savage course or just my age catching up with me I don’t really know. But I was beaten fairly and squarely. As Bukowski said, “What matters most is how well you walk through the fire”. Let me take you by the hand and walk through my fire.

There will be context that masquerades as excuses. Some of it may have had an impact on the day, some may not, but these are the things that felt important as the wheels fell off. There are no excuses here, I promise. I own the outcome.

My first DNF. Did. Not. Finish.

Get gin. Pour it long over ice. And settle down for a long read. The minutiae of this race is what makes it the race it is. I’ll spare you nothing.

The week before the race was imperfect, as it often is. Ted the mongrel wasn’t well.

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You see Ted the Mongrel eats literally anything which often upsets his stomach. Deer shit and sheep’s tails being favourite delicacies. So, on Sunday the week before, when he was sick it wasn’t anything unusual. Then again on Monday. And on Tuesday. By Tuesday evening he was quite unwell. I sat in the garden with him from midnight until 2am when the wretching started to ease. On Wednesday morning we woke up and the whole downstairs of the house had a few small patches that were not watery dog bile.

Off Ted and I went to the vets where he was admitted and put on a drip. By lunchtime he required a scan. By afternoon exploratory abdominal surgery was recommended. They removed an 18″ long soft toy that he had apparently swallowed in one gulp. He was due to be discharged on Thursday evening. This was delayed until Friday morning. He deteriorated overnight and our contingency plans went into place where I headed to Penrith by train while Pam and Roar went to visit Ted. Things were not looking good. Not looking good at all.

Make no mistake Ted is a dick. But he and I spend pretty much all day, every day together and in preparation for Buttermere we would hike 6 or 7 miles a day in addition to training. He’s a dick but he’s likeable in the way a village idiot is. I was worried about him. The arsehole.

Anyway. Back to the point.

Swimrun is a still a pioneer sport. There aren’t really any rules but the basics are this – you put on a wetsuit and trainers in the morning, you then travel round a pre-arranged course until someone tells you to stop, during this time you will swim and run and generally carry everything that you need. And, importantly, it’s a team sport – Andy being my partner – an Ironman, accomplished runner and a good swimmer.

Andy, Tara and Charlotte picked me up at Penrith and then we headed to registration. Early. Team number one. First to registration.

Now here is a thing about Breca Buttermere. You know you are toeing the line at a serious fecking event when the SAS Reserve are using registration as a recruitment event. I opted for a free promotional water bottle rather than applying for my own balaclava, although Andy was reading the brochure with unseemly interest.

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A theme of the race was that Ben and his team did a great job of gaining access to and maintaining the integrity of the Lakeland wilderness. At registration we bought our “cups for life” and our wetsuits and trainers were checked for biohazard and to ensure that we were not dragging invasive non-native species into the area. There is a brutality and rawness to the course and minimising our impact on it was a key ethos to the event.

Registration and briefing were like a meeting of the Tough Guys League. Whether the burliest bearded bloke or the most petite lady, the attire worn was a statement of the endurance CV’s of the field. I saw black Norsemen shirts, pretty much every Ironman on every continent, swim marathons, extreme ultras, normal ultras and even the occasional swimrun veteran. The alumni of the world’s toughest races had come to Keswick to pit themselves against the Breca course.

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We marked our arms with the course details. Slept the sleep of the unsleeping. Ate our porridge and then Tara took us to the meeting point.

And then it was time to go.

At 7:45am a bunch of coaches were full of variously attired athletes. Some completely done up as protection against the chilly wind and drizzle and some pretty much naked. The bus smelled of nervous farts filtered through neoprene blended with deep heat and the faint sweetness of electrolyte drinks. The bantz were minimal as we focussed on giant coaches drifting further and further into the wilderness.

We were dropped on a bleak moor, a cold wind battering into us.  The standard race preparations began – a queue for the portaloos forming and many a rubber suited chap hosing the dry stane dyke. Andy and I were interviewed by a video man. We waited some more and then on a countdown from 10, with no fuss and no fanfare, we were off.

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Dwarfed by our environment, significant only to ourselves, we headed in an upwards direction in what would be the theme of the day. It was funny that at the first gate people took a wrong turn and the majority of the field danced around puddles. It really would be a long day.

Within a couple of kilometres of the start we came to a shuddering stop at a kissing gate. A queue formed and we patiently waited our turn before steeply descending through the forest to Loweswater. This descent was runnable but was largely single track so the going was slow as we rapidly lost altitude down towards a forest track. Half an hour after we started we were swimming.

My heart rate was still high after the lakeside jog so I started slow, letting my breathing settle. Probably about 50m into the 400m swim I took point, as we had spent many hours practicing, and set a pace with Andy’s reassuring tap on my shoes every now and again. As we emerged from the swim we had a quick pace check – “OK, but probably on the fast side for longer swims”.

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The run from Loweswater to Crummock was about the only section of the day that was on tarmac, and was largely uneventful. Except that we met the sherpas unexpectedly. It is fair to say that they were noisy cheering sherpas, waking oversleepers in the nearby inn. And the dead in the nearby graveyard.

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The first swim in Crummock was when things got real. The Weather was sweeping in from the south and there were large white topped waves. The swim entry marshall reminded us to sight a static object as the kayakers could not hold position.

As we had practiced I swam on Andy’s left. I thought about taking the lead but the weather was so heavy it felt like I would be more useful next to him providing at least some shelter. The waves followed no pattern. Breaking on our backs, then head on and then catching our arms mid-recovery. Quite quickly we caught a team and I swam between them with their northern most swimmer getting sandwiched between Andy and I. It was the longest swim of the day and a big expanse of water, so it was challenging to work out our relative position but we were never more than a metre or so apart.

36181287441_c4fffd4678_oAs we’d agreed, we paused half way across to take in the majesty of our venue. We could barely have a conversation in the wind, and the bucketing rain, and breaking waves. I shouted to Andy to remind me in the morning about this swim when I wondered why I had bruised ribs. Unfortunately that wasn’t to be such clear cut analysis by the time we were done. As I sighted on the approach it was apparent the field was spread about 500m wide and drifting further from the exit. With about 100m to go I took the lead and guided us right into the exit flag.

In Crummock and Buttermere I made sure to drink plenty while I was swimming. Normally I don’t but it turned out to be a good use of downtime and remarkably easy to do without drowning.

Without fuss we got out and headed down the lake to the next crossing. Looking at the course profile the normal undulations of the race are masked by the enormity of the two big climbs but there is barely a flat surface in the whole race. Several times in this leg I disappeared into the bog well above my calf guards and this was where we started to see fallers carrying injuries.

The next crossing was my favourite of the lot. A clamber out on to a promontory and down it’s rocky face and up the same on the other side. I paused to have a chat with the marshall’s collie while letting Andy get in before me. The wind had eased so I pushed on to give Andy a draft and noticed an unfamiliar tap on my shoe. Andy was in a tussle with another swimmer to take my draft. Sharp elbows and some tactical manoeuvring and all was right again.

As I soft stroked into the rock I could see the sherpas on top. I lifted my leg out of the water to start the climb and got some vicious hamstring cramp. It took quite a bit of cuddling and handholding from Andy to stretch out the cramp and get going again.

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This was also checkpoint 2 before the first climb of the day. The sherpas ran the 50m from the swim exit to the checkpoint with us.

Ted had been preoccupying me; I was pretty certain he wasn’t going to make it and on the longer swims I’d been trying to work out how to explain it to Roar. That felt bad, really bad. I asked Pam how Ted was and she and Tara clearly hadn’t agreed an approach, I wasn’t sure how to interpret the response but it would have to save for later. I grabbed a handful of jelly babies, a couple of pieces of banana and took two good cups of electrolyte.

The hill wasn’t particularly punishing but was a hands on knees type effort. Somewhere in the foothills Andy offered me a taste of the Tribe Bar he had picked up. Now I understand that they were a sponsor and they supported the race and good on them for that but, shit the bed, they were a godawful bar. I chewed on the mouthful that I had until I couldn’t chew it anymore and then I tried to launch it. But I couldn’t cleanly gob it from my mouth. I was left looking like Roar does on Easter morning. It was dry but chewy and bitter yet sweet. At that stage of the race my insoles would probably have been more pleasing on the palate while marginally easier to chew.

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At this stage, we noticed for the first time the teams that had overtaken us long before were overtaking us again. We were taking huge chunks out of teams in the water only to lose it on dry land again. I kinda knew that would be the case but it sucked to know that if my legs were a bit quicker we could have consolidated on our power in the water.

Finally we went over the top after about 250m of ascent and plummeted back towards Crummock with a clear view of the swim, now well under way. It was an uncomfortable descent, the gradient making a run feel death defying and a walk feel decidedly awkward. I’d love to learn how to run properly in the hills.

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The last swim in Crummock, we settled back into our rhythm overtaking a dozen teams that had left us for dead in the hills.

The run from Crummock over to Buttermere was tough underfoot and undulating but straightforward. As we got to the waterfall there was a loud cheering squad and then as we descended to the bridge we saw Tara and Charlotte. Then Roar appeared giving me a big leg hug.

I took orange segments and jelly babies, a couple of cups of electrolyte and we were on our way again. This was an odd swim as it was never more than waist deep. Andy swam from the start and I walked a bit waiting for a ledge. It never came.

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Coming out of the water we ran south and through a tunnel carved out of the rock. We were really starting to get into the traffic of bemused bystanders at this point.

Then came what was undoubtedly my favourite part of the day.

Andy went full Hasselhoff, skipping along the beach and butterflying below the water, with what appeared to be slightly less grace than he intended. As I waded out it became apparent what had happened. There was a sharp shelf in the water and he had fallen off of it, attempting to style out his bellyflop for the cheering crowd on the beach. 9.7 from the judge from Fife.

We ran round the south end of Buttermere, again swapping places with the teams that had struggled in the water. The next swim, which would turn out to be our last swim, followed our standard pattern. As we exited the sherpas were back and they ran up the hill with us to the checkpoint. The marshall at the top of the rocky hill shouted that we were best part of an hour ahead of cut-off.

Checkpoint 4 was probably the only criticism I have of the race organisation. It was advertised to be a delightful buffet of bananas, gels, kendal mint cake, boiled new potatoes, hot tea, water and electrolyte. But it was seriously depleted – the bananas, gels and kendal mint cake were gone. So that left boiled new potatoes and the ubiquitous tribe bar.

The bloody boiled potatoes had been a running joke before the race. They are probably in my bottom three foodstuffs. On the best of days I can’t stomach them hot, never mind cold 26k into a race. I couldn’t believe a race would supply them. A perversion.

But, I was bang out of options, the aid table was bare. I had to stuff a boiled potato into my face. It was ice cold and covered in salt. I was gagging. Really heaving as I tried to swallow it.

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I knew the high fells stage was going to make or break our day so I had stuffed a soft flask in my wetsuit to ensure I had hydration when we went high. Given the state of the aid station I also stuffed a tribe bar in my wetsuit and we set off.

I’m not going to write too much about the high fells stage because I don’t think I have the words to adequately describe it and I don’t know how reliable my memories are.

We crossed the road and started ascending through woods. I’d describe the bottom section as steep and then it went to something beyond steep. The next two kilometres were absolute buggering hell. My watch recorded gradients of 49% with much of the first climb at over 25%. That is basically like going up a ladder. We were grabbing ferns, grass and the fence to pull ourselves up. A misplaced foot could mean a slip about a metre back down the hill. Within a kilometre my extra electrolyte was done.

Our fear as a team was always that either I would overheat or Andy would get chilled in the high fells. On the first climb a vicious wind was blowing and I could see Andy getting cold with my slow going; on the other hand it was probably giving me a false reading on my own temperature and I didn’t cab down my wetsuit.

The climb was so ridiculous the teams that were passing us could only laugh. One team that we swapped places with on every stage started shouting from well below. As they drew even I was still full of fun,

“Just how bad a swimmer actually are you?”

“Really bad but to be honest I’m not even a very good walker now”

The banter didn’t last long. Teams fractured on the relentless climb. Sharp words. Team-mate swapping. Silent trudging. The teams at the pointy end of the field were doing 30 minute miles. Our mountain-mates were slower still. It wasn’t fun. Not even a wee bit.

As requested in pre-event training, Andy kept cajoling me onwards. We met a walker with two retrievers and Andy settled in for a warming cuddle. With the dogs not the man, obviously.

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When we reached the first ridge the views opened up all around us. Loweswater, Crummock and Buttermere glistening in the sunlight far below us. As I huffed and puffed onto the ridge, pulse red-lining, a quote from a Breca 2016 blog sprung to mind: “life is not measured by the number of breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away”. This was living life as it is supposed to be lived.

We traversed Littledale Edge with Honister Pass far below us. Descending steeply I pointed out to Andy that my fingers looked like two packets of uncooked Richmond sausages. Dehydration. My mouth was also like I’d swallowed a bundle of cotton wool. He took my flask and the remainder of our day involved Andy sourcing puddles, which kept him warm, to hydrate me which kept me going.

The ascent to Dale Head had a cruel false summit and another steep descent before the climb to the summit. At this stage another team reassured me that they had plenty electrolyte and offered me some. I feel really guilty about this one as they were moving forwards really steadily and overtook us but then dropped back and missed cut-off too. I am hoping that they had enough water, because they were bloody good guys. Absolute angels to me when I was at my most dehydrated.

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The descent from Dale Head was vicious. Steep, rocky and treacherous but it gave us the perfect outlook of what was to come. The climb up High Spy but, more importantly the stream far below. Andy pushed on for water and I gingerly descended. Two flasks of water and I could feel my core temperature settle. With hindsight I should probably have  jumped in Dale Head Tarn and wet my wetsuit and let myself cool down properly. But by now we knew we needed a determined effort to make the checkpoint.

We could run for a bit between the bottom of Dale Head and the start of the climb to High Spy. Then the gradient increased again. Quite early on we had to climb a waterfall. As I raised my right leg my groin and inner thigh spasmed, cramping horribly.

I stretched it out and pressed on but precious moments were slipping away. At the top of High Spy making check point was still doable but stretching. We were running over the top and onwards onto the next ridge, pushing as hard as we could knowing that the descent off the high fells would be ugly.

The sun was high in the sky and the wind had fallen. Looking back on the data now we were below 6min kilometres and I could feel my pulse soaring, each step sent a shock through my body that culminated in a bass drum banging in my head. I’d stopped sweating, I felt sick and then I felt cold. Goosebumps creeping up my arms and round my body. I shouted ahead. “Andy, I think I might have a touch of heatstroke”.

Andy came back for my flask. “We need to ease up, getting off this hill safely needs to be our aim now”

“It’s ok, lets keep pushing on”

Sometime between Andy taking my flask and finding water I took an arse over tit tumble into a path gouged deeply in the surface of the ridge. I knew I hadn’t hit my head but pretty much everything else took a thud on the way down. My hands and both my elbows were bleeding, one elbow quite heavily. I had a dead leg and my ribs felt like, for the second time in the day, they had taken a pounding.

With bloodied hands and cramping legs Andy couldn’t help me up. I had to muscle my way out of the hole, sending my pulse racing again.

Moments later, rounding a sizeable mound on a slippery path I fell again. Vaguely aware of my surroundings I let Andy choose my path step by step for me.

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I was cooked. The next 20 minutes was basically Andy filling a cup with any liquid he could find and tipping it over me. Depending on the quality of the muddy puddle I got a “drink this one”, “over the head only”, or “sip but mainly over the head”. Slowly as we walked it out and I was doused my temperature came back down, the headache eased and my urge to vomit subsided.

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We were probably the loneliest men on the high fells as we looked over Derwent. Months of training wasted. I was gutted for Andy who could easily have made it over that stage on his own with hours to spare.

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The final moments of our race were down a savage “staircase”. Having been pretty well rehydrated I was feeling almost human again but that wasn’t even anything to celebrate.

We hit the checkpoint 17 minutes after cut-off, over eight and a half hours after we started, with only 5k to go, having done 38k and all of the brutal ascent. We were the first team to time out in the high fells with 14 teams behind us or already abandoned before this stage. There was still almost two hours left until the finish line closed.

It was a bitter pill to swallow as a finish was still easily doable, but we knew the rules and we retired in a lay-by in the woods with all the dignity we had left to muster.

This is a viciously majestic race that beat me fairly and squarely. I’m still not sure whether I love it or hate it but I know it had an affect on me that will probably take years to work out. The sights, the experiences, the camaraderie, the spilt blood and scabbed wounds mean that I will always view this more as an experience to be savoured than a race lost.

I have no idea, at this stage, whether this will one day feel like unfinished business. A week on it still feels like something, whose memories I will forever enjoy, but that I would not put myself through again.

Andy was a great training partner and for 20+ kilometres we had a great race. I am grateful for him being a good friend and coaxing me down from those hills and I’ll be forever one item of bling in his debt.

Swimrun is the future, that much I know for certain and will write more about.

For now, although I think Breca Buttermere is amazing, it is still in it’s infancy I think it could be even better. A couple of suggestions for Ben:

– the high fell stage is part of the character of the race but it’s a hella section to be unsupported. There were a lot of dehydrated people up there when the sun came out and some extra water either to carry from the bottom or at an aid station would keep the savagery but improve the safety. The logistics are challenging but necessary – it’s not an ultra or a fell run, it has different needs.

– the checkpoint before the high fells needs to be properly stocked. This needs no explanation

– I get the need for a checkpoint after the high fells but having the cut-off at the water’s edge would make a massive difference. The overly hot can get in the water and the hypothermic can get in a RIB for the short trip to race HQ. We, genuinely, would probably have swumrun faster than we were driven back. After we finally made it back, the water safety team was still out on the water.

As a postscript, Andy and I went back and finished the course a couple of days later. We did it in under an hour with plenty of dicking about with the gopro and adding quite a bit of distance on. On race day, despite the fatigue we could have walked it in within the cut-off.

In terms of balance we were timed out at 88% distance, but only 80% time. More importantly, for a swim bias team we had done 90% run distance and all the ascent but only 72% swim distance. The rules are the rules, and were crystal clear, but it would have been great to let swimmers swim and show their mettle as long as their was still a water support team on the lake.

This is one tough ass race that will just get better and better.

As an additional postscript Ted pulled through and I could pick him up from hospital with his large stash of tramadol on the Tuesday after the race. He is back being a dick again.

As a further additional postscript Andy has written an excellent race report here.

 

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Old Godzilla (Or What’s Coming Next)

Posted on July 6, 2017. Filed under: breca buttermere, swimrun |

I remember the first time I heard about it like it was yesterday. It instantly captured my imagination as one of those mythical events that I would never do. Of course I wouldn’t. What business would it be of mine to do such a mythical event?

Of course I wouldn’t.

Of course I would.

It was just before my first Ironman that my coach mentioned that her partner was competing in an event in Sweden. We hit a pretty significant communication barrier when an Englishwoman and a Scotsman try to share a Swedish word.

“He’s doing Ermagherd”

“Hurdyburd?”

“No Oootooderrr”

“Old Godzilla??”

As Scandic consonants transmitted via Yorkshire rattled round my head, I became distracted by the strains of the Proclaimers – “I’ve been so sad/
Since you said my accent was bad/He’s worn a frown/This Caledonia clown”.

Record scratch.  Never mind the name, what is it??

“A swimrun”

“Eh? Like an aquathlon”

“Noooooo. They run in wetsuit over islands and swim in trainers between islands.”

WHAT DA HECK?, as Rory would say.

Later that day I hit up google. ÖTILLÖ. Umlauted and everything, to stress that it was an otherworldly in a very foreign country. As with all the best events it was born in a pub after far too much booze. Of course it was – how else could anyone have come up with the concept?  75km running and 10km swimming across the 26 islands of the Stockholm archipelago, in two person teams, you wear whatever you need for the whole race. HOLY. SHIT.  What. An. Amazing. Challenge.

The race was in it’s infancy but I had no doubt this sport was going to be big.

And then, just as quickly as I heard about it, I forgot about it. Wrapped up for four years in the Ironman bubble.

But then, as predicted, swimrun got big and it came to the UK. I devoured blogs. I used google translate to understand articles in the scandic sporting press where swimrun was massive. I salivated.

However. Sad face. I could never find anyone daft enough to want to do the swim legs with me so swimrun remained a dream.

The first time I drove to what has become our usual openwater swimming session with Andy I mentioned ÖTILLÖ in passing. He was in the Ironman bubble though. After he did Ironman UK, I sent him some links to the ÖTILLÖ world championship that was just about to happen.  There is nothing not to love about swimrun. He was biting.

Even last year I still thought of swimrun as pretty niche. A distant foreign trip for the crazies of an excruciating degree.  Then Breca brought it within reach. Breca Buttermere looked like that mix of gruelling, crazy, fun challenge that makes you sit up and pay attention. I read Glenn’s blog. I was convinced. Andy was in. We signed up.

Breca Buttermere takes in the best of the Western Fells. Swimming in Buttermere (kinda obvs really), Loweswater, Crummock and Derwent and running (or, ahem, “running”) over Dale Head tackling the biggest gradient in swimrun along the way.

The whole premise remains vaguely absurd. Basically running up mountains in a wetsuit and wet trainers then plunging into a lake in same, and repeating.

As we run around Lochore at 7am on a Sunday morning we scare the shit out of the unsuspecting dog walker as we squelch past in attire normally restricted to gimps escaping a dungeon.  That is, most likely, the assumption that they make when they see us.

But it feels like it is going to be worth it. The swimrunner Markus Rössel puts it far more eloquently than I ever could:

“Adding the splendour of a dynamic team to the magnificence of endurance racing is a very motivating recipe. Mixing all of that round striking surroundings and a harsh course and stirring it together with your finest friend is just something that is pretty unique. Swimrun is not only a challenging mishmash of two disciplines. Equally this game involves much more than fitness and stamina as you need to function as an unit while you travel through water and across landmass.”

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Andy is a runner and I am a swimmer. It’s not the perfect team design but we will batter through 38km of running, 6km of swimming and 2000m of ascent in the magnificent Lake District, absorbing whatever the terrain, the weather, our bodies and the challenge itself throw at us.  Not so much Batman and Robin, but Ironman and Ironman.

Three weeks to go.

 

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