5 things I learned doing my first swimrun….

By James Phillips | 6 Minute Read

In the build-up to the ÖTILLÖ World Series race on the Isles of Scilly, I had a sneaky feeling that this blog could easily end up being titled "All the mistakes I made in my first swimrun", and with good reason…

Although I’ve got quite a bit of experience racing triathlon, in races ranging from around 1-4 hours, I felt suitably unprepared (as you inevitably almost always do) for what I had signed myself up for:

37.5km of swimming and running between, and across, the Isles of Scilly (broken down into ~29km of trail running and ~8.5km of open-water swimming across multiple transitions).

Even just doing those sort of distances separately in either of these disciplines would see me heading into uncharted territory. Barring one stupid 10km pool swim, I’d only swum 5km in one go a handful of times - and I'd never run more than 25km (and rarely ever go over 20km).

Having chased results and times in triathlon for a few years now, I had basically lost the ‘umph’ and drive for the sport in the last year or so and - despite pushing on and still racing - I wasn’t really excited by any of it anymore and knew that I needed to change something.

I took a step back and thought about what got me into (primarily endurance) sport in the first place, what I enjoyed and - perhaps most importantly - what I didn’t.

With that in mind, I found myself actively jumping at the opportunity to do events that I wouldn’t have thought twice about when I had my 'triathlon blinkers' firmly on in the past.

This saw me sign up for the Red Bull Neptune Steps with Andy and Jonny back in March. That was truly one of the most crazy couple of hours in my life to date! 

The thought of jumping into a freezing cold canal in Scotland and essentially experiencing what it must be like inside a washing machine for 10 minutes whilst trying to swim and climb to the finish line scared the life out of me - and more than once I thought about pulling the plug completely.

But, as with most things involving stepping out of your comfort zone, it turned out to be one of those days I’m sure I’ll look back on with fond memories for years to come.

Having absolutely no idea how you’ll respond to a stressful (in multiple senses of the word) situation, but throwing yourself into it anyway and seeing what happens is really liberating. If it comes off, and your body and mind do what you hope they will on the day, the wave of confidence is intoxicating.

So, when Andy asked if I wanted to partner up and take on the Scilly Isles ÖTILLÖ World Series race this year I thought, why the hell not...

 

Andy and JP breakfast before swimrun

We didn't go to war on an empty stomach...

 

"If you’re the first person at the top of that first hill, you’re fired", were the words from Andy that were echoing through my ears when the race adrenaline kicked in and I wanted to let my legs go when the gun went off on Sunday June 9th 2019.

I’ve got a bit of a reputation in the office for my pacing, or should I say, my lack thereof! But, having confidence in Andy’s experience and in the knowledge that I was well and truly out of my comfort zone, if I was ever going to listen to the Boss Man's advice, it was then...

Having had a fantastic experience on the Isles of Scilly and far exceeding any performance goals we had set (coming 3rd overall believe it or not), I thought I'd share some of the things I learned by doing my first swimrun...

 

1) Training for the specific challenges of a new discipline is crucial

Perfect planning prevents piss poor performance.

We’ve all heard that before, but never has it been so true for me than in regards to my first swimrun race.

Knowing what you’re getting yourself in for tends to make a huge difference to your enjoyment on the day. In this case it was about me knowing full well already quite how awful it feels to swim with my shoes on and how much faffing is involved when it comes to transitioning from swim to run over and over and over again!

I’ve got to admit that earlier this year I thought "Well I can run ok and I can swim alright, so this’ll be fine". How naive I was!

Andy got me to put some shoes on in the pool about 6 weeks out from the race and, in hindsight, that was 6 weeks too late! I lost ~15s per 100m instantly and felt my arms blow out in minutes.

After an intensive 6 weeks of largely swimming with shoes, paddles and the biggest pull buoy I could find, I wasn’t a whole lot faster, but I could definitely sustain a ‘good enough for now’ pace for full 3-4km sets.

 

Andy and JP swimming in swimrun

 

2) In swimrun, the right partner is everything

Finding someone whose swimming and running speeds complement your own is one thing. Finding someone whose open-water swimming and technical trail running (which is pretty much all ÖTILLÖ running involves!) abilities match yours adds another layer to the equation!

More important than all of this is finding someone who you don’t want to drown three-quarters of the way around the race. This is different for everyone and basically comes down to different personality traits and what brings the best out of you.

I honestly don’t think either myself or Andy would’ve gotten around the course any faster on our own. Despite both having rough patches at different times during the event, we worked together and ultimately got the best team result we could’ve hoped for because of the sum of both of our efforts throughout the day.

 

Andy and JP at finish line in swimrun.jpg

 

3) Getting confidence in your kit is vital

When I first heard about swimrun, the thought of not messing about with a bike was hugely appealing.

I’ve never been that into bikes, and although it’s great fun to ride some epic climbs in the Alps, or TT’ing hard and going fast, those moments seem too few and far between for me.

I’ve spent so much time getting frustrated with the intricacies of bike mechanics and kit optimisation and so many miles riding in the pouring rain around the New Forest that I’ve basically just lost the love for riding.

So, just swimming and running - carrying everything you need to get from A to B - seemed like it'd be right up my street in many ways.

There’s definitely less total kit involved in swimrun, but making sure you’re confident with everything you’re wearing and carrying is vital. If your paddles are too big and blow your shoulders out, or if you use a tiny pull buoy because that’s what you usually use in the pool (without your shoes on), or if your new swimrun wetsuit with the front zip rubs you in a completely new place, you’re in for a long day!

Also, there’s so much time to be made up (or lost) at the transitions in and out of the water. Knowing that you can get your pull buoy in quickly whilst wearing your paddles - and already having your goggles on, because you aren’t getting them on once your paddles are on! - can make a huge difference to your overall time.

 

Andy and JP on podium in swimrun.jpg

 

4) Being flexible and having the confidence that you'll deal with what's thrown at you is helpful

I was 100% sure that I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen for the circa 5 hours of racing that was ahead of us, but I knew that I would deal with whatever happened.

Accepting you’re not in control and knowing you’ve simply got to 'ride the waves' (pun intended…) from start to finish, safe in the knowledge that it’s all part of the experience can help you avoid any total physical or psychological implosions.

 

5) Lubing yourself up is extremely beneficial

Get yourself some lube and use it. Everywhere. Trust me...

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