SwimRun Loch Gu Loch Race Report
Last weekend, Lisa and I headed up north to the Highlands, Fort Augustus for our first SwimRun event, Loch Gu Loch. We had joked in training for the last year or so that we would be ideal for SwimRun as we have ‘similar’ swim abilities (Lisa is a much faster and stronger swimmer than me). Lisa had been injured most of last year and hadn’t been running but was now running again. During one Sunday morning ride, after much debate we decided to enter Loch Gu Loch, six weeks before the race.
SwimRun is still a relatively new sport to the UK, but growing in popularity. SwimRun is an endurance race which involves open water swimming and trail running with multiple transitions of swim and run (swim, then run, then swim, then run etc.). It is a point to point race, all the equipment that you start with has to be carried to the finish. You compete in pairs, running and swimming together, not straying more than 10 metres apart. Unlike triathlons, SwimRun has much more freedom there are no standardised distances or kit requirements. The origin came from Sweden, after a drunken bet between friends. The original race ÖTILLÖ meaning island to island is recognised as the SwimRun world championship (the Kona for SwimRun).
The total distance for Loch Gu Loch is about 8km of cold water swimming and 47km of mixed terrain running. Lisa’s longest run that year was a half marathon during Edinburgh Ironman 70.3 (21km!). On the run up to the race we had short sessions together practicing transitions and running in our SwinRun wetsuits and swimming with trail shoes. We certainly got a few strange looks running around the Pentlands in our wetsuits! I found the extra weight from my shoes dragged my legs, and found it much easier to swim with a pullbuoy and paddles. Lisa was fine without any aids during the swim. I got a new pair of light SwimRun shoes however they did not give me much support when running! In the future, I would go for a more supportive trail shoe and play around with my kit more prior to such an event.
We had a race briefing on Friday afternoon, checked kit and lined our stomachs for the challenge the next day. We had a wander around Fort Augustus and observed the cold, monster- filled water of Loch Ness. It looked calm with no signs of Nessy!
This year they changed the transport to the start with coaches so we had an extra hour in bed (whoop!). The race starts at Urquhart Castle on the shore of Loch Ness. It started to get light when we arrived, after a quick toilet stop, bag drop and group photo, we headed down to the Loch with a bagpiper to greet us.
I like to acclimatise to the temperature of the water before starting, we got in a little too early as the kayakers hadn’t arrived for the start and the race started a little late, 10-15mins. I was pretty cold and glad to start swimming once the race began. The first swim was the longest at 2km. I was close to the back of the pack, I think it was because I was cold but after ten minutes I got into the race and we started taking over others in the swim. Once we got the front of our pack we couldn’t see where we were the swim exit was, the kayakers were close by so knew we couldn’t be too off course. Although I was cold I really enjoyed the swim -the water was so clear and there were no signs of Nessy! Once we got the other side, I had been in the water for over an hour and had not been kicking my legs so my legs were totally numbed. After a few attempts of trying to stand – Bambi legs, fits of giggles- we both managed to get out the water. I checked my watch 1.7miles, I think our sighting was a bit off and we swam a little extra. Once out of the water the wind made me even colder. I’ve never been so glad to run, or even run up a hill, to warm up. After a couple of miles, I could feel my legs again and my feet began to tingle. I really enjoyed this run along a forest trail; the views overlooking Loch Ness were beautiful. During the run we managed to overtake two or three teams.
Swim two at Loch Duntelchaig -the water was crystal clear, we kept close to the shore to try and keep warmer but it was extremely chilly. We saw a few familiar faces kayaking which spurred me on. I was very glad of the feed station after this swim, a cinnamon roll never tasted so good! We were told by the volunteers we were the first all-female team so after a quick sip of water we were off again.
The race took us across a vast variety of terrains, we found we were much slower on the boggy and heather terrains, that’s where other teams overtook us. On trails, hills and tarmac we were able to catch up. Fell running has never been my greatest!
The coldest swim had to be swim five in Loch Mhor, it was Baltic and I needed help getting up the rocks onto the land to start running, I was physically shaking. There was a feed station after that swim and I found it a real struggle to eat or drink anything. It took a long time for me to warm up after that swim, luckily that was when we had the longest run and the sun came out. During the 16km run Lisa’s leg was playing up so we opted for a 7-9min run and 1min walk tactic which worked well as we passed four teams.
The longest run finishes at Loch Tarff, (after a long uphill climb) with beautiful views of the Loch. The last feed station was here, one of my (or our) downfalls of the day was that we were too chatty to the volunteers at the feed stations. We were too busy enjoying the day and not being very competitive (time- wasting). We were 8hours and 30mins into the race, with two more swims and one 6km of run we were hopeful of getting under ten hours. The swim at Loch Tarff was a little more interesting with short swims between small islands on the loch. Lisa got cramp during one of the swims so we resorted to skulling and then walking on the islands. The last swim is more of a knee deep bog but swam it (doggy paddle) as we didn’t want to lose a shoe.
Out of the swim, Lisa’s cramps gone, we were aware of other teams behind us. The run took us back onto heather and tough bracken terrain which was slowing us down. Somewhere we missed a marking or sign and before we knew it we hadn’t seen a course marking in a while. We stopped and checked the map. We had gone too far and re-traced our steps. Sadly, this was when we knew we had blown it. Now our fatigue had kicked in and enthusiasm for the race gone, we were just desperate to finish. Once back on track, we noticed the flags, they went up a very steep hill and we were scrambling to the top. This was where other teams started to pass us, the four teams we managed to hold off all day caught us and it felt like they were flying past us. I think we added about 25-30mins extra getting lost, urgh! The views, from the top over Loch Ness, were worth it. We decided to jog the rest of the route back to the water for our final swim.
We were greeted by Mike and his wife, marshalling for the day at the last swim start and we jumped in. We were escorted during the last swim by our triathlon club swim coach Gavin, on a kayak. Once we got to the red buoy we waded the last bit of the swim and had a gentle jog to the finish. Total time 10hours 25mins 26secs.
We really enjoyed the event, just frustrated by our error on the last run. The course was well marked maybe in our tiredness we weren’t focused enough or we didn’t want to climb another hill, ha! The race is well supported with marshals at the start and exit of every swim, all very friendly and helpful with directions and tips, thanks! I’ve also got to thank Mandy for lending her compression socks, life saver!
I really enjoyed my first SwimRun event, the best bit was racing as a team and having a buddy with you throughout the day to share the highs and lows. I like the freeness of SwinRun events, in natural beauty, trail running and open water swimming; it’s more of an adventure. I found it challenging after the swims being cold, the wind chill didn’t help! The wetsuits do help warming you up quickly but it does take it out of you doing it numerous times throughout the race.
Even after our detour, somehow, we were the first female finishers and 13th overall. We were both pleased with our efforts considering we only started training six weeks prior and we weren’t at our peak fitness. The next day when the results came out, we found out we were the only female pair finishers that year, the other two pairs did not finish the race.
After defrosting, we headed to the boathouse for some food and received a prize for our efforts. I would recommend this race, be prepared for cold water 8-12degrees, long sleeved wetsuit is definitely required. It was well organised, we were regularly checked up on and kayakers on every Loch. I may be a little biased as I live in Scotland but the scenery was totally worth it! Would we do it again…. Lisa is already planning how we can get enough points for ÖTILLÖ next year!