Freelance journalist and blogger Fiona Russell is better known as Fiona Outdoors. She is based in Scotland and happily combines work with play. Mostly, she’s a keen triathlete, cyclist, hill runner and skier but will try any outdoor activity that comes her way. Read more articles this this in Totally Active Magazine.
What is SwimRun?
A SwimRun is a point-to-point endurance race in teams of two with multiple running and swimming stages. Events take place in lakes, lochs and at the coast with competitors swimming between and running across islands. It was in 2006 on the Stockholm archipelago in Sweden that the first SwimRun, the Ötillö, took place. Since then, and as the Ötillö has grown in participation numbers and reputation, some 60 more SwimRuns have launched across Europe. Now SwimRun has taken off in Scotland with two inaugural events in Loch Lomond and Loch Ness last year and more planned for 2016.
In the beginning
The original SwimRun is called Ötillö, which means “island-to-island”. The event sees athletes travel 24 islands by running across them and swimming between them.
The total distance of the Swedish event is 75km of which 10km is open water swimming and 65km is trail running. The Ötillö is considered one of the world’s toughest endurance challenges.
Swim Run in Scotland
With its picture-postcard lochs and coast, myriad small islands and enviable outdoor access code, it’s a wonder that SwimRuns have not reached Scotland before now. But, of course, Scotland is also famed for its wildly fickle weather and numbingly cold waters. Luckily for those who like their endurance races to be a little different yet totally on-trend, two brave organisers decided (separately) that the summer of 2015 would be the one to launch their inaugural Scottish SwimRuns.
The first was Loch Lomond Inch by Inch, run by Alan Anderson, followed shortly after by Loch Gu Loch at Loch Ness, founded by Paul McGreal and Stuart McInnes of Durty Events. Despite a summer that could be better called a winter, the two September events were blessed by favourable conditions and hailed a huge success by all who competed and spectated. This year will see both of the SwimRuns staged again alongside three more Scottish events. Alan has added a short course to the Inch by Inch event on September 4. Durty Events have Hell’s Hop scheduled to take place for the first time in the Sound of Barra in the Outer Hebrides on September 10.
Paul is a veteran organiser of many of Scotland’s tough adventure races, including the renowned triathlon-style Celtman. He said,
“SwimRun needs a particular combination of geography and climate, like Scandinavia, and I had thought for years that Scotland would be perfect for such an event. “We have the right variety of terrain, an abundance of lochs and many islands located in these lochs and on the coast. But we also have something else that makes SwimRuns possible and that is the fantastic Scottish Outdoors Access Code. Of course, we would still seek the permission of land owners before staging a race, but the code means that open access to the countryside is already a given. Durty Events chose Loch Ness because “we like to stage interesting races in fabulous locations.”
Loch Gu Loch SwimRun
Loch Gu Loch – Gu is Gaelic for “to” – comprised seven runs and 13 swims totalling 47km and 8km respectively. It started at Castle Urquhart, by Drumnadrochit, on the western shore of Loch Ness. The first swim took participants across the loch, after which the rest of the race was played out on Loch Ness’s southern shores and via various smaller lochs before finishing at Fort Augustus. Paul said,
“It struck me that the southern countryside of Loch Ness is not often explored, especially not in races, yet it has an amazing landscape that is fairly easy to access. Added to this, Loch Ness is famed for its mystery. Those dark and forbidding waters combined with tales of the Loch Ness monster are legendary and this appealed to us as the focus for a new event. We were also aware that inclement weather could be a strong possibility and when we added in the length of the swim and run stages we thought our race would appeal to endurance athletes from across the world.”
They were right. The entry list included competitors from as far afield as Australia, America, Slovakia, Sweden, Greece and Germany. Paul admits the SwimRun proved to be even tougher than expected. He said,
“It was meant to be a journey into the unknown and we knew it would be fairly tough but it turned out to be harder than we imagined. It was the contrast of cold water swims to short-ish runs, during which people struggled to really warm up before plunging back into cold water again, that caused a lot of fatigue. Our Scottish lochs are known for being cold generally but this September they hovered between 10C and 12C and that was a shock to many competitors. But there were still so many smiling people and such an upbeat atmosphere at the race.”
The winning pair was Graeme Stewart, of Inverness, and Bonnie Van Wilgenburg, from Oxford, in 7 hours 34 minutes. The last pair home took 11 hours and 41 minutes.
Bonnie, 28, is an experienced and accomplished amateur triathlete. Graeme is a triathlon coach, Ironman competitor and winner of the 2013 Celtman. They entered the SwimRun for “a bit of end of season fun” although Bonnie still took her training seriously. She said,
“I was so anxious about the cold water in the lochs that I included regular 50 minute ice baths. The open water around Oxfordshire is balmy compared to Scotland so I took Graeme’s advice on the ice baths. And it worked really well. I was actually warm throughout the whole event and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I am more of a runner than a swimmer but I found the running sections of Loch Gu Loch much tougher than I expected. I was pleased that this was balanced by finding the swimming easier than I’d imagined. But 8km is still a very long way to swim.”
Entering for fun meant that the pair felt no pressure to perform. Bonnie, originally from The Netherlands, said,
“I was excited rather than nervous. I love the Scottish landscape and it was a great opportunity to compete with Graeme, who is also my coach. We had no expectations so when we won we were thrilled. I hope to do more SwimRun events because they offer a great challenge.”
Inch by Inch Loch Lomond
A walk on a hill overlooking Scotland’s other famous loch kickstarted the idea for the creation of Loch Lomond Inch by Inch. The name is taken from the many islands that begin with “Inch”, including Inchmurrin and Inchcailloch, that can be seen from Conic Hill. The race comprised 11 runs totalling around 25km, 10 Swims of around 8km and a summit of 361m high Conic. Organiser Alan, from Glasgow, said,
“A chance chat with a triathlon friend at a party gave me the idea for an Ötillö style event in our local swimming loch. Loch Lomond is a favourite location for our Glasgow Triathlon Club summer open water swims and I could suddenly see how the many islands could offer the perfect platform for the in-between running stages. The SwimRun event turned out to be every bit as amazing as I thought it would.”
Competing on home territory again resulted in a win by local athletes, David Ogg and Ewan Mulhern, at Inch by Inch. The friends, who have raced successfully in triathlons for many years, reported that Inch by Inch appealed because it was “something very different and very challenging”. David, of Lochwinnoch, Renfrewshire, said,
“I really like the format of doing different sports as part of one race. I had been looking around for an event to in 2015 and I wanted it to be new and interesting. With two young children my training is limited these days but I thought that since I can swim and run fairly well the SwimRun might suit me.”
Ewan was also attracted to the setting of the race. He said,
“I know Loch Lomond well and it’s such a picturesque place to swim. When the day came and the weather was so unusually calm and sunny I just couldn’t believe our luck. However, it was a tough event and it took us a lot longer than we imagined.”
David believes that “pacing and consistency” helped them to reach the finish line first. He said,
“There were competitors who are much better swimmers than us but perhaps they underestimated the run sections. In many places there was no path and the terrain was very testing. On one island we ended up running through the water at the shore rather than across the island because it seemed easier. In the end our ability to keep going and our experience of off-road running helped us to win through overall.”
Upbeat and fun
SwimRuns are not simply about being first. The organisers of both new events have been overwhelmed by the sprit of all participants. Paul said,
“While the wining pair in Loch Gu Loch took 7.5 hours the final pair came home in just under the cut off time of 12 hours. Yet everyone smiled and laughed throughout the whole day. There is something about these events that creates an incredible atmosphere.
Alan agrees. He said,
“In the many years I have been involved in triathlon, in no other event have I ever seen lots of experienced, some would say jaded, athletes participate with such large smiles and silly banter. SwimRun racing liberates them from power meters, worries about drafting and transitions, and all the stuffy rules often associated with triathlon. Instead it takes their racing into stunning off-road locations and brings fun back to their sport. There is nothing else like SwimRun.”
As well as mandatory kit, competitors wear wetsuits suitable for cold water swimming. Most cut off the arms and legs to above the elbows and knees.
It is also now possible to buy SwimRun specific wetsuits with front and back zips so that the suits can be peeled down to waist height while running.
Trainers are worn in and out of the water and a float (no larger than 100cm by 60cm) can be used during the swims to compensate for the weight and drag of footwear.
Swimmers can also use hand paddles and they can employ a tethering bungee (or similar) between themselves in the swim and run.
Race bibs and swim caps must be worn and visible at all times.
While SwimRun is similar to triathlon in that it has multiple stages and transitions, the rules are far simpler and more adhoc.
Paul, of Durty Events, says: “The rules run to no more than half a sheet of A4 and this is such an uplifting thing for organisers and participants.”
A team consists of two people aged at least 18 who, during the race, must be no further than 100m apart on land and no more than 10m apart while swimming.
The race course is marked and participants follow the course to reach each designated checkpoint.
Timing chips determine checkpoint times and there are cut-off times that must be adhered to for safety reasons.
All teams carry mandatory equipment throughout the entire race in a waterproof container or bag, including a basic first aid kit, compass, map, and emergency whistle.
This article is a feature piece from Totally Active, a completely interactive online magazine written by active people for active people. Totally Active are on a mission to push endurance to its limits, to help readers achieve their potential, whatever the sport or activity. Totally Active have brought some of the world’s foremost endurance, performance, nutrition and fitness experts together in a publication which informs and inspires readers to go to the edge, to break boundaries, and to succeed. Read more articles like this at Totally Active today.