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Tuesday 13 July 2021

Race Report: Breca Coniston SwimRun - Gerbils In The Walls & Drinking The Lakes

Tackling the first climb! (Photo by Route North)

I like to be organised before a race. I like to have my ducks in a line and to know exactly where and when I was going. And how far.

Turns out that instead of ducks-in-a-line. I had gerbils-in-my-walls. Turns out that Coniston Swimrun is in Lake Windermere. And Lake Rydal. And Lake Grasmere. There is no Lake Coniston whatsoever. This moment of epiphany, the evening before the race start made me begin to doubt quite how effective my prep had been, exactly.

I had HOWEVER been organised enough to write all of the swim and run distances on my hand. In biro. Before the race started. 

Organised ... with my biro and my writing ...

These lasted until precisely swim 3 when I tried to read the distance. Might be 0.9km. Or 0.5km. Or is that a 3? 

Biro! Thou Hast Failed Me! (Clutches breast) 

Luckily the organisation of the event was perfect. Registration was super-easy and very welcoming. I was checked in by the organised and enthusiastic Fred (who is the Managing Director and an endurance athlete!) who confirmed I had all of the mandatory kit; wetsuit, tow float, reusable cup, whistle and shoes. There’s always such a lovely welcome at the Breca events, you really know then that you’re part of something special. The shoes are also checked to ensure they’re clean and dry for biosecurity – we don’t want to accidentally introduce any invasive species!

Registration at Grasmere Village Hall

The atmosphere is amazing and even though every participant is very different, everyone is ready to chat and the enthusiasm for the Breca events is so infectious. You can’t help joining in with the excitement. You just KNOW you’re going to have an amazing adventure. 

The coaches picked us up from Grasmere village hall and took us to a village hall in Far Sawrey about a mile from Lake Windermere which was where the race was to start. Even the coach ride was buzzing, everyone was chatty and passing the high hills and still waters of the lakes, I couldn’t quite believe that I’d be climbing and swimming those within the hour.

There was the usual milling about and chatting before the race which was nice. It’s been SO long since an event that I’d forgotten how much I missed the social side. I met Jake, the Event Manager at Breca who was so enthusiastic and kept us all entertained with his microphone chat before the start of the event. Had a chat to Emily Walton — duathlete and cyclist extraordinaire and Kate Milsom — adventurer and bikepacker. Emily and Kate had teamed up and it was to be their first swimrun. They were chilled-out but focused and I had no doubt they’d do well. 

Photo taken by Jake (taken from the Breca instagram feed)

I’m not an amazing swimmer by any stretch of the imagination. I’m thoroughly confident though – a kick in the head doesn’t tend to faze me too much but I do have a big weakness when it comes to swimming. I drink the water. No, not on purpose. But I tend to ‘slosh’ after a long swim. This is particularly gross when I’ve been at a club swim session as I KNOW they pee in the pool. I just don’t know how to stop it. The peeing or the drinking. 

However, I thought I’d play to my strengths – or weakness in this case. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop myself drinking the lake water, but I may as well use this and not bother taking hydration with me. I’m going to ‘slosh’ anyway so why take extra?

It was a lovely chilled-out start. No pressure and it felt a bit like the start of an ultra when nobody wants to go across the line too fast! Rach and I started together but the trail was so busy for the first section as we had all set off together that you couldn’t really run side by side. The first kilometre or so was up a fairly steep track and I had to keep my eyes on the path as it was pretty stony. It was difficult to see too far ahead as there were so many feet in the way so I had to trust that I could jump over a hole or large stone with a moment’s notice! The trail wound up through sheep-nibbled fields and back down into a wood with a stream running by the path. It was a fun descent with the path twisting between the trees with sharp bends. We all leapt down the trails and the woods were buzzing with chat and people enjoying the trails.  

It was only about 2 and a half kilometres to the first swim but rather than keep the swim cap on, I’d stuck it down the neck of my wetsuit and put my googles around my neck so I couldn’t lose them. I’d gone with a very basic tow float which had a line around my middle which fastened with a clip and I just clipped this onto the float when I wasn’t swimming. About a tenner from PlanetX – bargain! There were a lot of people with pricey tow floats but this one was great and gave me no problems at all.

Hopping into the water, which was a pebbly beach with fairly large slippery stones, I popped the cap and goggles on, unclipped my tow float and span my pull buoy around so instead of being strapped to the outside of my leg, it was now between adding extra buoyancy. As you swim wearing trainers, it’s difficult to get an efficient kick so I use a pull buoy to give my legs some extra buoyancy.

Into the first swim! (Photo by Route North)

This was the longest swim at nearly a kilometre long and I found that it was difficult to sight. My face was warm from the run and the lake water and my goggles cold so they fogged up almost straight away. I couldn’t see the Breca quill flag on the shore – despite it being a bright yellow – so I followed the trail of colourful swim hats and pull buoys in front of me. This swim had been changed slightly. Originally we were swimming between the islands but it had been amended to between the shore and the islands. There were a few boats to swim around and I wasn’t sure when we had to cut in to the shore so I kept sighting on the hats and buoys in front through my steamy goggles.

Rach and I had become a bit separated by the single track trail but as I swam, I caught sight of some familiar star arm tattoos on my left – Rach! It was great to know that my swimrun buddy was shoulder-to-shoulder with me in this unfamiliar lake. 

A cluster of colours from the hats and pull buoys and the Breca quill flag showed on the shore and we cut in and came into the transition area. I started what was to become a familiar ritual over the next couple of hours; hat off, goggles down, spin the pull buoy and re-clip the tow flat behind me. 

The next run was about 3.5km and it was on gravelled trails. Nice to run on and a chance to dry off after the lake! Despite showing as virtually flat on the maps, the trails were constant small inclines and descents through woodlands. Lake Windermere was sparkling between the trees on our right  and it was the perfect temperature for a swimrun adventure. As it had been so warm at Gower Swimrun in 2019, we had to take our wetsuits down to waist height top cool down on the runs and that meant constantly taking the bibs on and off. As it was around 17*c (warm enough!), I kept the wetsuit on and the bib on the whole time and just unzipped a little if I was getting warm. It was a LOT less faffing!

The next swim was 200m across a bay. I licked the inside of my goggles before putting my face in the water and it made a HUGE difference – I could actually sight this time! My sighting point was the dip between 2 high hills and the yellow quill of the Breca transition flag was between these. With the advantage of being able to see, this swim was divine! The lake temperature was about 16*c which was perfect and the quick transitions between the swims and runs kept it interesting. There was no time to get bored of swimming or tired of running … you’d be splashing into a lake or splashing out of one before there was that chance! 

Into the depths! (Photo by Route North)

I waited for Rach out of the water and then headed out onto the next section together. The next run was very short, just over the headland before another dash into a lake and across a bay. The descent into the water was rocky and steep but I managed to get in without tripping, slipping or accidentally pushing someone else into the water.  The distance this time was 0.7km but the sighting was a little more awkward (the dip between the trees) so I set my face towards the yellow quill and set off. I was about halfway across but my sighting kept getting interrupted by a green kayak. Then an airhorn went off and one of the safety boats waved to show I needed to go around them to the right before re-sighting on the quill. I’m not sure why, maybe currents? But you can see on my Garmin map the loop to the right where I went around the safety boat before orienting myself back onto course. 

There were a few supporters on this transition which was lovely – always nice to get a cheer! I got out of the water and up onto the bank where I kept an eye out for Rach, She was number 5 and I was number 4 and she is very distinctive with her bright red hair but I couldn’t see her. I asked the marshal whether she’d been and gone but just then she popped out of the water! Perfect timing! This next run section was the longest 6.5km and it had the large hill of the course right in the middle – 210m of climbing. In a wetsuit! The run out was over trails which were single track and a bit marshy and then over a grassy field. It was lovely and reminded me a bit of one of my local races with the old oak trees and running through the lush tussocky grass. 

The trails so far had been a good mix. There had been stones, pebbles, slates, shale, sand, soil and rocks. And I had been perfectly sure-footed on these. I LOVE a bit of technical trail. However, what I’m not so good at is perfectly flat ground. Without anything to trip over. As I promptly demonstrated when landing flat on my face after tripping over precisely nothing. Absolutely nothing damaged, but now covered in mud, bits of sticks and random crap I carried on running with mucky badges of shame on my knees and both hands. 

Hiking the climb ... but the views! (Photo by Route North)

As we got closer to the ascent, the trail became rockier and single-file. As we ascended, the running became hiking. As I climbed up I started chatting to a chap who was doing his first swimrun. He’d wanted to drop out at the first swim but had pushed through and was glad he’d kept going. The trail narrowed even further and it was narrow single file and there was no opportunity to overtake so we were all caught at the speed of the person at the front of the line. A team running together took the wrong turn at a bend and were called back by the team in front of me. An example of how sociable and lovely this event is. They didn’t think of their placing, preferring to help another pair out.

I couldn’t see Rach now but knew she wasn’t far behind as I could hear her Brummie accent chatting away at a million miles an hour. I couldn’t hear what she was saying but I could hear the twang and the enthusiasm.

Is it another false peak?? (Photo by Route North)

The trail kept climbing and climbing. It was rocky and beautiful and I had a bit of ‘Sarah Moment’ almost falling over backwards … but grabbed some ferns growing at the side of the path to keep me upright! A bit close, that! Up at the top … and it was a false peak! A stony outcropping stretched upwards and a line of runners were moving to up it. I joined the line and at the top managed to scoot past a couple so I could enjoy the descent, rather than have to hike slowly down. I love a bit of downhill running! The path wound through the ferns and around rocky cliffs. It was beautiful and wild and green. Running down a steeper bit of of trail, a black line of mud stretched across the trail and I ended up with both feet in it – nice cool water on hot feet!

Getting to the top of the hill! (Photo by Route North)

The next part was a descent down to Rydal but I was caught up in a line of people picking their way down the steep, stony trail and I wasn’t able to take advantage of the lovely downhill. It was probably just as well as I’d probably have fallen down again at some point but it would have totally been worth it. I might even have bounced back upright with my tow float cushioning my fall and springing me back onto my feet as I was running with it behind me, clipped on, like some gigantic orange arse.

Fighting the Ferns! (Photo by Route North)

At the bottom of the descent, we came out onto a road at Rydal and lots of people walking, hiking and out for the day enjoying themselves. There was even an ice cream van. I didn’t stop but this may only because I didn’t have any cash on me ...! Just after the ice cream van was a Breca aid station and I stopped for a couple of cups of electrolytes. I’d carried a soft cup which squashes up on the inside of my wetsuit and filled it up before carrying on. As I was finishing my 2nd cup, I saw Rach running past. I called out to her but she was clearly In The Zone – I even saw her run up a hill! - and she didn’t respond. It’s so good when you’re that focused on an event! I caught her up after a couple of minutes and we plunged into the water together.

Into the next swim at Rydal Water, hat out of wetsuit neck, goggles up, pull buoy span and tow float unclipped and go! It was a short swim  - but a difficult sight as the sighting point for me was a dark tree above the Breca quill, however it was over before I knew it and I was out and running again. I was a little bit sad that there was only one more swim after this one. Who would have thought that I – the self-proclaimed flailer-in-the-water would be sad that the swims were nearly done?

The next run was just 2km and was mainly dirt trails under trees. My favourite sort of running – I LOVE woodland runs – everything just smells amazing. I’d got the course downloaded onto my run watch but I hadn’t needed to navigate with it as the course was so well marked with the red cardboard Breca arrows and little flags at the main junctions. Even I  - who is capable of getting lost on a staircase – didn’t lose my way. 

Leading the charge! (Photo by Route North)

I passed a team of girls and chatted to them briefly as I passed “Just 2 more miles including the swim!” We were all a bit sad that our lovely adventure was almost over. I ran through a few more trees and up and down a steep dirt incline and met a lovely marshal who informed me that I had only half a mile to swim, then a mile run and I’d be at the finish line. Hopefully with a medal around my neck, a snack in one hand and a pint of something lovely in the other hand. 

I ran down to the stony shore of Lake Grasmere and the transition marshal pointed out the yellow Breca quill on the far shoreline. It was almost hidden as the wind kept turning it. “Just aim for the red tree”. Red tree? I can see 2 purple ones. Maybe he means those? The treeline was quite flat – there was nothing distinct on the horizon to aim for. I went down into the water and struck out for the far shore. It felt as though there was a bit of a current helping me towards the far shore but I didn’t seem to be getting any closer to either of those purple trees. I kept going. The water was divine and I was a bit thirsty after all of that running – and talking – I took a mouthful of fresh lake water. Lovely. It seemed a bit weird to be drinking the lake water as I was swimming but I didn’t care. It tasted good.

I eventually got a bit closer to the shore but I was still a way along from the purple trees. I swam parallel to the shoreline and eventually spotted the yellow quill flag. I swam all the way into the shore, making the most of those last lovely seconds of swimming in Lake Grasmere and ran out, whipping the yellow cap off and setting the braids free. This was it. The final run. I hadn’t seen Rach for ages or heard the Brummie tones but I decided I’d see her at the finish line with a cold drink. Being a good friend and all. 

The last run was up a dusty sandy incline, through a kissing gate and then downhill on nice trails. We popped out onto a quiet country lane and suddenly were faced with a horde of ultrarunners coming the other way. I’m assuming they were ultrarunners. The kit, the numbers and the ‘I will loot your body for snacks if you die nearby’ look said it all. I have the same expression in long events. 

Braids a-flying, tow float a-bobbing! (Photo by Route North)

The lane wound around corners with the occasional car and ultrarunner coming the opposite direction. I began to spot houses and I knew I must be close to the race finish line. Suddenly I heard cowbells being loudly rung and people were clapping. A marshal pointed into a garden of a hotel and it was sprint finish time. Sprinting, with pullbuoy and towfloat bobbing, I made it across the line to the dulcet tones of Breca Jake the Magic MC saying my name. 

Even the medal is made from sustainable materials!

I can’t recommend these events enough – I’m lucky enough to be an ambassador this year – but read anyone’s race reports and you’ll see they’re all saying the same thing. They’re an amazing adventure through some of the most beautiful parts of Britain … and they have races in New Zealand and Canada if you want to treat yourself to one of these! What I do love about them too is that the participation field is so spread out. There’s no pressure to be an amazing swimmer, an amazing runner or an amazing swimrunner! The finishers times were from 2 and a half to around 5 and a bit hours and everyone had the same support and cheers and the same engagement in the event. I really loved this. At some events you can tell who is racing at the sharp end … in swimrun events … not so much. I thought this was brilliant 

Why Breca?
Why not help the environment while you race? Breca’s mission is to become a fully sustainable brand while hosting races in some of the most exciting and beautiful places. Their races have been cup free since 2017 (you have to bring a reusable cup which is checked at kit check!) and you can also do what I dod and instead of have a race tee, you can have a tree planted instead with Trees Not Tees! All medals are created from sustainable sources and unused medals are recycle with Zero Race Medals!

Result: 3hrs 23 and 9th female solo!

Run 1
Swim 1
Run 2
Swim 2
Run 3
Swim 3
Run 4
Swim 4
Run 5
Swim 5
Run 6

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