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Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Breca Gower Swim Run: Seals and Why You Should Always Check Your Fern

(I was incredibly lucky to have this place gifted to me by Breca. Thank you SO MUCH – what an adventure!)


Photo By Breca

I’ve never been a team player. I like the IDEA of working as a team but at school I was the one standing at the end when everyone else has been picked along with the kid who smells funny and has one finger permanently up a nostril and the kid who has has a communicable disease, hates sports and is threatening to lick anyone who picks him. I get distracted too easily. I’d get bored not playing at all times and would be standing there, wondering what was for lunch when the ball smacked me in the face. Or forgot which team I was supposed to be in so passed the ball to the opposite team. I am an appalling team player.

So I tend to do races on my own. Or take friends who already know that I’m a bit of a nightmare when it comes to snacks, navigation, choosing a bathroom spot … and are ok with that. Or tolerate it at least in exchange for the good snacks. 

However, what do I do when I find out that an event that I’ve planned for isn’t a solo event … and I needed a friend to do the event with me as a partner?

I don’t panic. 

I know just who to ask. 

Do you have a ‘Yes Friend’? If not you need to find one. A ‘Yes Friend’ is a friend who whenever you ask them to join in on one of your bonkers adventures, shouts “YES!” very loudly before you’ve even finished asking. And even better, they talk you into their adventures too.

So that’s how Rachel and I entered Breca Gower SwimRun.


Rachel and me in Wales!

I arrived in Mumbles the day before the event and was blown away by how stunning the area is. It’s all cliffs and wild beauty and miles of sweeping beaches and coves. The sort of place I couldn’t wait to explore. It looked straight out of a Famous Five story and I was half expecting pirates and smugglers to sail across one of the bays. I couldn’t believe that I was going to run those steep but exciting cliffs and swim across those sparkling waters. It didn’t seem real. It seemed too big an adventure.

You know when you have a big event and you can’t quite imagine yourself afterwards …? It seems so big in your mind that you can’t quite believe that you’ll be the same person. That you’ll be you, but changed. That’s how Breca SwimRun felt to me. 


Photo by Breca

I’d booked a farmhouse to stay in which was a few miles from Mumbles. To get to the house, you had to drive miles and miles up a tiny winding lane which got narrower and narrower and more and more twisty - like a hedged spiral staircase. The farmhouse was large and white and looked beautiful and quaint. And also smelled alarmingly of cat wee. I didn’t spot a cat but judging by the smell it was the size of a mountain lion. However, the bedroom was clean and large and full of character and there was plenty of room to lay my kit out ready for my adventure the next day. 




I had to be at registration at 0800 hours and have my kit inspected to check that I had everything that was required. It wasn’t a huge amount but the mandatory kit per team was:

* Two wetsuits
* Two whistles
* Two reusable cups

Luckily my wetsuit had a pocket to stash the (squashable) cup in and some handy snacks. You don’t realise until you try and race some distance in one, that wetsuits aren’t the easiest things to hide food in. I just tied the whistle onto the wetsuit zip cord.

I got up in plenty of time and picked up my pre-packed bag ready to go. I dropped it all in the car and got to to the carpark I’d sneakily scoped out the day before.




Where I hit a snag. A big snag.

The car park instructions were all in Welsh. Which was understandable as I was in Wales. However, my working knowledge of Welsh was nil. 

Bugger.

My only option was to keep sticking coins in until it beeped at me … or a friendly local came along to assist. Luckily it was the latter and it was soon all sorted out. She even showed me how to turn the machine display into English. **facepalm**

As usual I had arrived really early. I hate being late for things. It’s extra stress and if I can’t find where to park or how to get to registration then it’s extra pressure. I’d rather chill out, scope out where to get a coffee and then have a leisurely wander up to the start.

However, after getting a few odd looks, I realised that not only did I have on my usual morning face [my Oh-My-God-Don’t-Talk-To-Me face], I also was wearing my comfy – yet battered – pre-race joggers, a hoody, my terrifying morning hair (before I’d put in the race plaits) and I was carrying a massive ru cksack (containing my wetsuit, cup and snacks). I realised I was perfectly nailing the ‘mad-and-transient’ look. 

I wasn’t complaining though. I get grumpy if people try to talk to me pre-coffee. I made a mental note to do this look again in the future. It would be ideal if I wanted to get to the front of a race portaloo queue. Certainly no-one would argue with my pre-coffee face.




Registration was in a beautiful green location called Underhill Park in Mumbles. It was surrounded by an old grey stone wall and was bordered by trees. The large white Breca tents stood out sharply on the green grass. This would be where our race would finish today. Our start was 13 miles away in Oxwich Beach. Our goal today was to make it back to Mumbles by swimming the coves and running the land in between. 

Rach and I registered our team and showed the Breca crew our mandatory kit and picked up our rash vests which had our race numbers on. This was it. We were in. Team number 16. 


Sooooo nervous!!

Our team name was ‘No Wheels Today’. Basically we were 2 triathletes who had NO CLUE how to do a swimrun and who weren’t allowed to use our bikes. Despite our training sessions which involved swimming in trainers and running in wetsuits, we really did feel like absolute amateurs who were totally winging it.

Note: Don’t try weeing in a swimrun wetsuit while RUNNING. This was an experiment I have already done so you don’t have to. Sloshing. There’s sloshing.

I saw Elise Downing before registration who had sorted out the entries for me and Rach. I gave her a quick hug and thanked her for sorting our entries. I’m sure you have already heard of Elise but one day in 2015, she set off to run the coastline of the UK. Self supported and carrying her belongings on her back. That’s 5000 miles! And she completed it in 301 days. She’s an inspiration and a genuinely lovely person.


Photo by Breca

Rach and I got ourselves into the registration tent and sat ourselves in the middle of the group. Everyone looked prepared, lean and professional. So what were we doing here? So it was quite a shock when three quarters of the people in the tent raised their hands when asked who was therefor their first swimrun event. Phew! So at least Rach and I weren’t completely out of our depth then! (First swim pun right there – badum-tish!) The registration set our minds at ease. The set up was really professional and the course was fully way-marked plus there were marshalled checkpoints and transitions. There were also to be plenty of boats and safety crew out and about following the progress of the swimrunners. So in theory I wouldn’t even be able to do my usual trick of getting completely lost.

We dropped our bags off and piled onto the 2 coaches  waiting by the trees of the park ready to take us to the start of our adventure.

It was 13 miles to the start … so how long would you estimate it would take a coach? An hour. It took an hour! The twisty roads and tiny lanes made the journey slow but it was amazing to get a look at the beautiful terrain we’d be running across. It was wild and beautiful. Despite my nerves, I couldn’t help feeling how incredibly lucky I was to do this. 

The coach parked up on a beach bordered on each side by steep sheer cliffs. A wide sweep of coastline with a shallow bay was on our left – the direction we were to be running. It was desolate and beautiful. The day was overcast and the clouds were brooding … the perfect set up for an adventure. 


Photo by Breca
And then in complete contrast to the wild beauty, the coaches emptied and all the females immediately made their way to the toilet block … it had been an hours drive and rather a lot of coffee, after all. And is it even an event if you’re not in a toilet queue for 20 minutes beforehand?

We grouped on the wet sand of the beach, the cold water soaking into our trainers and shivering with nerves although not cold. And we were off! The start of our adventure!

The route was split into 5 runs and 4 swims. Basically we were heading from Oxwich Beach back to Underhill Park in Mumbles and doing this by swimming the bays and running across the headlands. Our first section was to run nearly 3km from Oxwich Bay to Great Tor and swim 0.7km to Three Cliffs Bay.


Photo by Breca

The run of 3km along the beach felt a long way and I was looking forward to getting into the sea – but also dreading it. I wasn’t sure how I would feel after running – and setting off far too fast along the sand and shingle – but I still wasn’t going to slow down!


Photo By Breca

Plus I had forgotten just how difficult it is to enter the sea quickly. Do you dive? Do you jump? Or do you do what I do – an undignified waddle-wade and eventually fall over?

As soon as I got into the water, I remembered why I loved sea swimming. It’s so so different to lake and river swimming. The currents move you and you just get to see so much more underwater. I soon got into a rhythm and Rach and I stayed together really well. We hadn’t tethered ourselves for this event (although you could choose to if you wanted to) and our swim speed was evenly matched. 


Photo by Breca

We sighted on the white Breca quill on the beach and was soon out. However, pulling our wetsuits down to our waists and taking our goggles off was a lot more complicated than in training due to the race rash vests that we had to wear at all times with our team number on. We had to take the vests off, take the wetsuits down, put the vests back on and remember to take the goggles off so we could see where we were going! Also my swimrun wetsuit has short sleeves which makes it remarkably difficult to take down in a rush without bending your own shoulder backwards. It’s just awkward as haven’t got the sleeves to pull it down with unlike a normal tri wetsuit. Had to ask Rach for help. 

However, after finally managing the difficult task of dressing myself (now I know why my child used to complain so much), we got out to run the 7.7km to Brandy Cove. This was the longest run and checkpoint 1 was during this section. I was surprised just how thirsty the swimming and running combination made me. However in order to get to the drinks and snacks, I had to climb a sand dune … and a cliff. And then do some actual running. 


Photo By Breca
You remember, when as a kid, you tried to run in fine sand? It takes ages … and it’s EXHAUSTING. I finally made it up the side of the cliff, where I got to laugh at Rach giving me her ‘how do I even do this’ face. However, we both made it up the cliff, unscathed and enjoyed the trot along the top on the rabbit-nibbled grass. And the views were AMAZING. The sun had finally come out and the swim caps were off and the sea glittered blue in the Welsh sunshine. We had a view across the sea to our right and the bays and coves were laid out on either side. It was the most amazing thing. Running along salty and damp from the sea, warm in the sunshine and knowing we had miles to enjoy this. 




The run along the top of the cliffs was divine. The trails crossed in and out of gorse and ferns and the clouds scudded across the sky with sunshine one moment and grey clouds the next. It was ideal for this event as it was a nice temperature to run in and the sea felt glorious after hot runs. 




We were running along a stony path where we were chatting to another team and were told by 2 Breca marshals about the seals in the sea below us. We stopped to have a look and could clearly see them playing like puppies in the water. It was a real treat to see them and encapsulated what a very special event we were part of. 

How many events do you do where you get to swim near seals?

We clambered down the rocky cliff and I dropped on down and while waiting for our turn to go into the water, I started chatting to one of the marshals. There was only one place to get into the water safely with the rocks and the swell and the Breca team were amazing at ensuring everyone was safe and secure. I chatted away and looked up, to realise Rach was still halfway up the cliff. I’m a crap friend. I’d been so busy chatting, I hadn’t realised Rach wasn’t too keen on heights and was stuck. Climbed up to check on her and she came down with company. She’s super-brave. Worried about heights and hadn’t even mentioned it in her enthusiasm to do the event. 


Photo by Breca

We climbed down towards the sea and set off swimming through the clear water towards our next checkpoint and the white Breca quill flag we could see on the far shore. The current was stronger here and we were swimming towards the shore but not making much progress. The seabed didn’t look far below me and I could see the seaweed swaying with the current and swells as we were swimming, rocked by the waves. You feel quite protected in a wetsuit and goggles and with a friend swimming beside me, it was quite surreal. However, we didn’t seem to be making much progress towards the shore, the tide was moving us further along than we wanted and we weren’t getting closer to the shore. We decided to swim parallel to the beach and then try and strike inwards. That finally worked, but what we expected to be a short swim turned out to take a lot longer than expected. 


Photo by Breca

We ran up onto the beach, did the gymnastics with the kit change and set out onto the run. Rach had mentioned a couple of times how her stomach didn’t feel quite right and she was looking a bit green. Not a great situation to be in in the middle of an event and while wearing a wetsuit. However … we were surrounded by tall ferns. Rach stepped off the path and found a clump of bushy ferns and I stayed on the path and dreamed of the enormous ice cream I’d be eating at the end of our adventure.

Eventually Rachel appeared. Her stomach was much better … but she was a bit wriggly. “You ok?” I asked. She hesitated. Apparently ferns are great for wiping your bottom on as they’re nice and soft. BUT it’s always a good idea to check for ants first.

Lesson. 

The last run section is past a coastguard station lookout and is through scratchy gorse bordered by a high cliff. Rach was super happy about her choice to wear calf sleeves but I looked as though I had been wading through feral cats. This section was quite hilly but it was so beautiful. We were both a little sad that we were coming towards the end of our Wales adventure. It had been such a journey and something so different to anything I’d done before. As we came over the brow of the hill and down a narrow little alley, we heard the event loudspeakers echoing through the trees and it gave us an extra boost of enthusiasm and our legs winged us down the field and onto the grass of Underhill Park towards the Breca Gower finish line. 




WHAT AN ADVENTURE!




I have never done anything like it before but as soon as we passed the finish line, exhausted though we were, Rach and I looked at each other exhilarated and asked “When can we do this again?”




So our choice for next time is not whether to do one again, but whether or not to go long!

Thank you Breca! You were amazing!




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