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Breca SwimRun

Updated: Sep 28, 2018

I had once heard that if you put your tongue on the top of your mouth, it will stop an ice cream headache. In between breaths and trying not swallow the entire Lake Wanaka, I was doing just that, but so far it wasn’t working. I was no more than ten strokes into the 2.5 kilometre stretch of water that lay ahead of me. I knew it was going to be long, but never did I imagine it was going to be this cold.

Looking up every third stroke or so, I was aiming for the boats which were supposedly making a channel for us to follow, guiding us to the flag on the other side of Stevenson’s Arm. That’s what we had been told at the race briefing the evening before anyway. Scott was ahead of me, just that much faster so that he could tread water and have a proper look at the line we needed to be taking before I caught up. Except he wasn’t convinced. The boats appeared to be well out to our right, and instinct told us (well, Scott) that we needed to head more left. Meanwhile, I was having a mere; I just didn’t seem to be making any progress, the shore appearing no closer than it had been when I looked ten minutes earlier.

We stopped for a much-needed team talk and devised an action plan. I could sense the frustration in Scott’s voice when he was politely telling me I kept drifting in the wrong direction. We had a tow rope that we had already been using on the run, but had opted not to use on this leg. If there was ever a time in this race to work together as a team, this was it, that and we needed to start moving again quickly before we both froze! We hooked it up to each other, and for the rest of the swim I sat right on Scott’s feet and let him be the guide. The odd occasion that he did stop I kept on swimming up beside him; I had visions of Titanic recreating itself at the top of Lake Wanaka.

The last time I could remember being this cold was when I was at primary school, and we were stuck up the mountain on the chairlift in a white out. I couldn’t feel my feet, or my hands and I kept biting my tongue as my teeth chattered uncontrollably. I would have given Miley Cyrus a damn good run for her money with my twerking skills, of which I had no control over! I actually did think this while swimming, that and how all I wanted was a Pork and Apple Pie from the Fairlie Bakehouse.

“Is that shore getting any bloody closer?” I yelled in my mind, angry at myself for not putting in the hours needed to swim eight kilometres competitively, let alone the 2.5 I was attempting now. But like anything, I knew I just had to keep going. There was no doubt it was going to end, it was just up to me how quickly that was going to be. Someone asked me once I had finished if I freaked out when I saw the bottom. I instantly replied ‘no’. Seeing the bottom meant the swim was almost over! I’m making it sound like I hated the swimming, I didn’t, I really enjoyed it. The repetition of arm strokes, breathing, and gentle kicking had a soothing rhythm to it. What I didn’t enjoy, especially on the long section, was the cold.

While living in London three years earlier I had heard about a race called ÖTILLÖ, (Swedish for “island to island”) an endurance swimrun race based in the Stockholm archipelago. I guess what intrigued me the most were the images of people wearing a wetsuit while running distances more than a marathon, with some weird floatation device attached to their legs and paddles on their hands. My mind boggled, and I needed to know more.

ÖTILLÖ started in 2002 when two teams of two challenged each other to run and swim 75 kilometres over 26 islands. The rules were simple: the last team had to drink and pay for the rounds at the bars lining the route. And so, the sport of swimrun was born. When I heard that Breca Swimrun was coming to Wanaka for its inaugural event, there was no option I was going to miss this one.

NOTE: Breca (or Brexit as Mum calls it as she knew the Race Director Ben is from the UK) is a character from the Old English epic poem Beowulf. In a seven-day swimming race across icy, windswept seas Breca is victorious over the eponymous hero; a defeat that Beowulf only acknowledges as he had stopped to fight sea monsters during the match. This is mainly for mum’s benefit, but I bet she will still call it Brexit.

The competitive side in me was always going to opt for the bigger challenge of the day. The Long Course consisted of 17 transitions – eight swim legs (eight kilometres) and nine run legs (42.2 kilometres), while the Sprint Course was the last half of the long course, starting at West Wanaka and consisting of five run legs (15 kilometres) and four swim legs (3.5 kilometres). Starting at Albert town, we set off running at 8am (a very leisurely start time due to daylight savings) along the Outlet Track towards the mouth of the Clutha, and our first swim leg. The initial cold water running down my back took my breath away but was quickly forgotten as I battled sideways while pushing against the current to the bank on the other side.

We then carried up the west side of the lake along a 4WD track and down into Dublin Bay. Aiming for a tree on the other side we were overtaken by a few teams but appeared to be tracking along nicely. We arrived at the first checkpoint of the day and fuelled up on bananas, cliff bars and electrolytes. It was a treat not having to carry our own! In a move that I hope quickly becomes compulsory in all events, no matter how big or small was the exclusion of plastic throw-away cups. Instead, we had to carry our own drinking device with us throughout the day. We both used an UltrAspire cup, which can be screwed up to nothing and jammed inside our wetsuit. They worked brilliantly, not only better for our environment, but it must have been so much easier for the volunteers at each station. I was warned they don’t go so well when filled with hot water, though!

Cruising along we picked our way over sheep tracks the gravel beaches before crossing at the top of the lake over Stevenson’s Arm and down to the shore for the longest swim of the day. Just surviving the freezing waters, we emerged on Cattle Flat on the far side and had a short amble (meant to be a run but the legs took a wee while to find life again, see first few paragraphs) to the next transition. Politely harassing the volunteers for a warm cup of tea, or just anything warm (we weren’t the only ones), we fuelled up again before starting the longest run section of the day. Scott and I had both previously done this route before while competing in Red Bull Defiance, except that time we had the luxury of two wheels beneath us! Scott’s stomach wasn’t playing ball, not ideal in a wetsuit, so we cruised along at a steady pace before reaching the next station just before the Matukituki River bridge.

The overcast skies had now cleared to a beautiful warm autumn day, and it didn’t take long for the sun to warm our bodies in our wetsuits. The conditions were once again perfect. Somehow, I had managed to hit the jackpot with my three main events this year – Coast, Challenge and now Breca (luckily, I avoided the snow storm at Defiance!).

A long flat slog along a gravel road to Buchanan’s Rise followed, but we managed to run all of it before reaching the water of Glendhu Bay and the next swim section. We were met by three boats with friends and family – Jacqs and her brother Aaron had come over from Alexander, Dad with his jet boat and Adam Spiers with his. I was slightly jealous of the ladies on the back of Adam’s sipping their wine while soaking up the rays! Dad had bought his jet boat down to follow us throughout the day; any excuse to trawl and fish for nine+ hours! He was great, and we often found him chatting to the race volunteers at transitions, a very typical trait. At one stage, we were running along the millennium track when we looked down and spotted him fly fishing below us, quickly followed by Jacqs and her brother hooning past on their wakeboard! I did mention to Scott that I would have happily traded places with them both.

From here to the finish line we managed a good pace, both running and swimming. I really enjoyed the running and found myself keeping up with Scott more than I usually would (yes, I was still on the tow for the hills), but we made up good time on the run sections, only to be caught and passed once back in the water. Unluckily for us, we finished with two one-kilometre swims out to Ruby Island and back, and were frustratingly overtaken again. But on the plus side, I have always wondered what Ruby Island was like and look forward to going back next time on a jet boat with a beer in hand!

Running up the grassy bank at Edgewater we stopped the clock at 09:22, well down the pack but very happy with our efforts. As always is the case with these types of endurance events, the pain has diminished, and I find myself wondering if Hvar in Croatia is a good spot for the next swimrun race (I know, how bloody awesome would that be!). I couldn’t fault the event; it was well run and a great day out exploring the shores of Lake Wanaka. They have some exciting news for next year too, although we were told not to let the cat out of the bag. So, here’s a clue: It’s not in the South Island, and it involves a group of islands…

I’m the first to admit I underestimated this race. Or, more to the point didn’t train properly. Since the Kathmandu Coast to Coast, I had really buttoned off, in fact, I am ashamed to say I only managed four swims outside of the pool – two in the irrigation pond at Mum and Dads, one in Lake Clarence over Christmas (yikes) and one while competing in Challenge Wanaka. Add to that a rather large Friday night the week before celebrating the Irish, with the Irish, resulting in a cracked rib. I figured if there was any bone in the body to hurt and still compete, a rib was just that. But it did mean that codeine and ibuprofen were consumed quite high quantities during the seven days leading up to the race.

But I love a challenge, and this was exactly that.

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