It's been a great season for Ben and Rhian Martin, the husband and wife swimrun team who are currently ranked as Britain's best mixed team. They came 3rd at the Isles of Scilly race in June - their first podium - then followed that up with a fantastic 11th in a very competitive World Championships race in Sweden. Those results left them ranking at the top mixed team in the Swimrun World Rankings.
I caught up with them after the World Championship race as they reflected on their breakout season (which, it turns out, wasn't finished quite yet!)...
So, Ben, Rhian, congrats on a great result at the ÖTILLÖ
Swimrun World Champs. Can you talk us through what the race entails?
Thanks Dave. Well, it’s the pinnacle of swimrun, held just outside Stockholm, Sweden, with only 150 teams qualifying. You swim to and run over 26 islands in the Swedish Archipelago, starting on the island of Sandhamn and finishing at Uto, which is 75km away. You race across 26 different sea swims, so you have 26 different run legs. You swim in your running shoes and run in your wetsuit and you have to finish the race with the same kit you started with.
You also can’t accept any help from spectators and you have to be within 10 meters of your partner at all times. It’s a race like no other. CNN ranked it as one of the toughest endurance challenges in the world....
What did your training plan look like in the months before the World Champs? Where did you do your swimrun-specific training and how much transition practice did you do?
We were training 6 days a week, averaging about 3 hours a day (with rolling/stretching on top). Swimming and running formed the main foundation of our training of course, but core and strength work also became important, as well as yoga and stretching.
Swimrun, especially the ÖTILLÖ World Championship course, is like nothing we’ve trained on before, so we swam in outside pools or lakes as often as we could, in wetsuits and trainers. We did a lot of brick “run then swim” training sessions – say a 10 – 20km hilly run then immediately into a 4 – 6km swim, for example.
We don’t live anywhere near the sea, so it was very hard to practice sea swims – which was tough, as in the race there are 26 sea entries and exits – all over very slippery and steep rocks, with waves and rip tides battering you. We definitely advise as much sea swimming and transition training are you can manage!
How do you tactically prepare for a race with so many transitions in and out of water on rocks, and a course spanning 65km of trail over multiple islands?!
The sea entries/exits were really hard. We knew there would be rocks, but were very surprised just how hard they were to climb up and down when exiting/entering the sea. In some places you had to climb up 20 metres of rocks just to start the run leg, which was particularly tough after the “pig swim” – the 1.4km second longest swim, where the waves, wind and rip tides battered us non-stop. Ben was knocked over by the waves on one exit.
It was a learning for us – and something we definitely need to work on for 2018. The local Swedish teams had it nailed, so over the rocks we lost time to them. Completing the course for a second time will be a great advantage.
So, how does it feel to be the fastest British Mixed swimrun team? Talk us through your race. I think it's fair to say these were the toughest race conditions you could have imagined?!
We’re really chuffed with our result. Our first aim was just to finish inside the cut off times. With the gale winds at 30 knots producing the worst conditions the race organisers had ever seen, this would be a challenge. Our second aim was top ten and to also be the fastest Brits.
The race organisers are very safety conscious – and the race was within 20 minutes of being delayed or the course altered due to the winds. But the forecast showed these would let up (which I think they did, hard to tell!) so the race went ahead.
ÖTILLÖ also trust us as racers to make our own decisions on whether we want to start. And as race director Michael says, “There can only be one winner, so take a minute and look out for each other.”
What kit did you use during the race? Do you race with a tow line, buoyancy calfs and other swimrun-specific kit?
We use swimrun specific wetsuits - Zone3 Evolution suits, which come with thick 8mm calf guards. To increase buoyancy we swim with normal pull buoys and Ben uses paddles.
We roped together for every sea swim – even the shortest one at 60 metres. The rip currents in these small swim sections were crazy. We were starting at a 45+ degree angle, heading into the current to allow us to get pushed towards the swim exit. We got better at this through the race – deciding on where we’d aim for before we got in.
Then it was head down and blast, full gas. Being roped together was crucial for us, as we knew we wouldn’t separate and could just concentrate on making it across. Some teams who didn’t do that and were picked up by the safety boat as they had no chance of swimming back to the shore. That was race over for them unfortunately...
What was your hydration and nutrition strategy during the race?
These are massively important factors. We planned for a 10 hour race – but it took an extra hour due to the extreme conditions. We burnt over 6,000 calories each.
We knew that Precision Hydration was going to be at every Energy Station, which was a massive plus for us as we use PH in our training. It was good to use a product we’re comfortable with and can trust to deliver the electrolytes we need. PH offered a Low and High mix at each stop, so racers could use what suited them.
As always we preloaded with PH 1500 the day before about 90 mins before the start.
We decided to take as many gels/bars as we could – opting for Torq as they contain a decent amount of carbs and are made from natural ingredients and, again, this is what we train with. The organisers have recently stopped providing gels at the energy stations (we were offered sandwiches, hot dogs, dried fruit and homemade gels.)
It's largely Swedes dominating swimrun at the moment, but the French are showing up in increasing numbers. Do you think the UK will catch up? There certainly seems to be a lot of buzz around the sport in the UK at the moment?
The Swedes are amazing at swimrun, it’s one of their natural sports and they can train in the race conditions far easier then we can. The Brits are catching up though. When we started in 2015, we always got asked why we were swimming in trainers – and then weird looks as we ran around in wetsuits. Now there are often 2-3 other swimrun teams practising at the lakes.
It’s a really open and friendly sport – think where Ironman was 25 years ago. We think it’s going to grow massively in the coming years. There were over 400 swimrun events last year globally. And The Guardian described ÖTILLÖ as the home of the one the world’s fastest growing endurance sports.
What is it about ÖTILLÖ events that make them so good? What other swimruns have you done?
ÖTILLÖ aims to provide unique races in unique places and they certainly deliver on this promise. Each location presents completely different racing conditions. We suggest you choose your race(s) on where and when you want to race and also the strengths of your team.
Are you better runners than swimmers? Do you prefer hill runs or flat? Would heavy waves/tidal currents put you off?
We prefer races with a higher % of swimming than running – but this won’t be for everybody. Here's a summary of our recent races to give you an idea of the varying challenges...
Hvar, (Croatia) – Super long swims in what became challenging conditions due to the wind and waves. Hilly runs with amazing views.
Engadin (Switzerland) – Racing at altitude in the Alps, with over 1,750 vertical meters of climbing – most of this in the first hour. Crystal clear lakes, with varying temperatures.
Isles of Scilly (UK) – A beautiful location, racing in the Atlantic which (for us) was calm and welcoming. But conditions can change quickly. Great for spectators.
1000 Lakes (Germany) – Again, long swims across a lot of lakes. It’s been brought forward 3 weeks now to ensure warmer race conditions. It’s a flat, fast course, with dead calm swims.
What's next for you in the sport? What are your longer term goals?
We’ve realised that we’re hooked on swimrun! Therefore as a last minute entry, we raced ÖTILLÖ 1000 Lakes in Germany on October 1st. Whilst we gave ourselves some time off from heavy training post Sweden, we figured our fitness levels were high enough to race hard at the 1000 Lakes.
We had another podium finish in mind – as this would qualify us for a return trip to the World Championships in 2018. And, if we gained enough points, then we’d top the Swimrun Rankings.
We’re pleased to say that we came 3rd mixed team – just 3 minutes behind the winners and 29 minutes behind the overall winners. It was a super tight race throughout, we were only 300 metres behind the first team, but just couldn’t catch them!
We’re really chuffed to finish the year topping the rankings – racing under the banner of Team Drummond Clinic, the best physios we can get. It’s a sport we really love and we look forward to more racing next year.
As well as The Drummond Clinic, we’d like to thank Zone3 wetsuits, Torq for their energy gels and, of course, you guys at Precision Hydration for your invaluable hydration advice and personalised electrolyte products.
Great stuff, we look forward to watching you push for your first win next season...
You can follow Ben and Rhian's swimrun journey on Twitter. And, for bespoke swimrun training sessions contact email@example.com