Cashmere Mudfish @ Breca Wanaka 2018 — When Swimrun *Hurts*

Trying to stand up after swimming across swells on Lake Wanaka for more than 1 hour (Photos courtesy of Breca Swimrun)

Last Saturday, my swimrun race partner Dan Wallace and I (“Cashmere Mudfish”) headed south from Christchurch on our — now annual — pilgrimage to take part in our second Breca Wanaka swimrun race.

In last year’s field of 39 teams — the first ever swimrun event in New Zealand — we managed to land what felt like a respectable 7hrs 56min — 16th overall on a stunning 50km (42 run + 8 swim) course around the shores of Lake Wanaka.

All smiles the night before the race, with the last swim from Ruby Island in the background.

Last year there were quite a few luminaries from the New Zealand multisport scene taking part in what was (then) a completely novel event format on our side of the world. So, as a couple of rank amateurs trying our hand at something new we felt pretty pleased just to finish the distance. It was certainly the longest race I’d ever taken part in by quite a stretch.

This year’s course was 4km longer than last year — 45.5km running, 8.5km swimming

Cut to this year’s race: the revised course was a bit further overall (45.5km of running and 8.5km of swimming — 54km in total) but generally followed last year’s route with a longer swim at the start and shorter swims once we made it around to Glendhu Bay about two thirds of the way through.

After checking into the Edgewater Hotel (race finish line) we joined about 140 other competitors at the newly opened Wanaka recreation centre for the race briefing the evening before. Race director Ben De Rivaz from Breca — the UK-based organisers — gave a short overview of what to expect and the atmosphere was relaxed and — for the first-timers — a bit apprehensive . The field for the full course race (there’s also a shorter “sprint” distance which had 50 teams this year) was half the size from last year at just 19 teams — it seems most people have decided to focus on the forthcoming Breca Bay of Islands race in April instead. Something to do with water temperature, perhaps…

Either way, we were confident of a Top 20 finish. :-)

We had trained solidly over the past few months — as last year, Dan had focused on February’s Challenge Wanaka Half Ironman the month before (5th in age group, nice work) while I’d just been knocking out running and swimming sessions around our home town of Christchurch. Pretty much every Sunday morning since January I’ve spent in and out of the water around Lyttelton Harbour — finding routes between Naval Point, Corsair Bay, Rapaki Bay, Governors Bay, Quail Island and Diamond Harbour. Fun sessions, sometimes joined by a few athletes from the small and growing Canterbury swimrun community. And jeez this (southern hemisphere) summer has been hot — running in a wetsuit in 30 degree heat is pretty hard for cold blooded animals like me…

Due to Dan’s triathlon commitments, we didn’t manage to sync together for joint training sessions until 3 weeks before the race. However we slipped straight back into it and also experimented with a few technical improvements (…more on these later…) — trying out fins (nah), dry bags to carry shoes on the long swims. Last year Dan was (by far) the stronger runner and I was the stronger swimmer — this year Dan’s swimming technique had improved massively and now I was struggling to pace him on the shorter swim legs. But also my running pace had improved a bit from last year. Everything boded well.

So we were feeling reasonably relaxed and confident going into the race on Sunday morning — onto the bus at 7:30am to get taken to the race start by the steaming Clutha river.

A bit of banter on the start line, great to catch up with a few familiar faces from last year’s race, and then at 8am the hooter went and we were off.

Only 54 km to go!

A nice easy 5km run leg along the river to start things off, comfortably sitting in 4th just behind the 2nd and 3rd teams and feeling smooth as.

Straight into the first transition — NZ Swimrun evangelist-in-chief John Hancock (racing with Mrs Hancock in the Sprint this year) spectating and passing loud comment on our novel transition technique: shoes and pullbuoy off and into the drybag, tow bungee on. We’d tested this a few times and it was worth about 1–2min per km in training as I get a lot more power out of my kick at the front with Dan drafting so we’d planned to do this on the two big swims on the course. First thing we noticed was that the lake was more choppy than last year when it had been flat as a pancake — but also *much* warmer thanks to the hot summer. All good.

And so we made our way around the first third of the course: up Stevenson’s arm, pulling away on the runs and losing a bit of time on the swims, which is how we had expected things to roll. Things felt pretty good, we were in 4th, running at a good pace (if anything we went off a bit too fast) — making our way up the rocky shingle beach, climbing over wire fences following the Breca markers, enjoying the views. Knowing the course from last year was definitely an advantage as well.

Then two things happened in close succession which on reflection probably affected our race result. Firstly, I jumped over a fence without looking up properly — I was wearing a cap this year — and whacked my head straight onto a tree branch — ouch. Still, all good. About 10 minutes after that, on a flat non-technical track, about 10km into the course, I randomly rolled my left ankle…arrrgh. 9 months since I last rolled it, it just had to be during the race didn’t it….was it related to the headknock?

I hobbled a bit, ran through it. “How is it on a scale 1–10?” asked Dan. “5, we’re gonna be OK” I grimaced. Probably a 7, on reflection.

(Key to the Swimrun pair team format is to keep checking in with your race partner: how they’re going, when did they last take on nutrition, have they remembered to take their hand paddles off their belt going into the water (!)… from regular training and racing Dan and I have developed some good banter to check how the other is feeling all the way through the race. It’s good — very different to racing solo.)

We kept going and I adjusted my running gait to compensate for the ankle as we pulled away from the 5th and 6th placed teams. I could feel that my legs were working a bit more than usual but felt OK, we were still in 4th as we clambered across the rocks along the shore ready to head into the middle part of the race and the big 2.5km swim across the neck of the lake.

“OK…let’s do this” I said to Dan as I sighted across to the far side of the lake, tried to get my heading and launched off. Last year (despite the flat water) we banana’d around and ended up swimming ~300m extra due to not keeping a straight line. This year the race organisers had put a couple of boats with red strobe lights along the course to help us — but as soon as we got away from the shore we found ourselves being rolled around in a sizeable 1-metre swell, it was hard enough sighting the shore let alone the boats. But this year the water was warmer than last so I wasn’t feeling too worried — and I’d taken my shoes off again so I was able to get some power in the kick. We swam and swam…making tortuously slow progress until about the middle of the lake when, after a few twinges, both of my calf muscles cramped up simultaneously. That hurt….although as I was to find out, pain can find a few more levels. I flattened out and after about 2 minutes of discussing what to do, we decided that Dan would take the lead on the tow and I’d draft in behind him. All of the advantage of having my shoes / pullbuoy in the drybag to enable me to kick was gone — and to top it off the drybag was leaking air and starting to drag. Won’t be trying that again next year.

So I got a try at being the rear swimmer, following the shoes of the guy in front and trying not to get my arms tangled in the bungee…but it’s actually a cruise and the rest of the big swim passed uneventfully — even if it took FOREVER to get to the other side. In the end we clocked 1hr 19min for the crossing, which was more than we took last year in flat conditions and left us both pretty broken. Dan said he found the swim much harder than last year.

We had lost two places — the two teams just ahead were filling up on nutrition on the beach when we landed.

Getting out of the water was hard and we kept falling over when trying to stand up.

The cramp starts here… (trying to get shoe back on)

It was even harder trying to get my shoes back on as my legs kept cramping up involuntarily… not a pretty sight.

At this point I can only imagine what Dan was starting to think…we’re not going to finish this. But after filling up on gels and Em’s power cookies on the beach, we set off on the big 15.5km middle section run down to Glendhu Bay. This long run leg was our mental advantage — we had practised a long run several times on our Sunday practice sessions and knew we could just get into the groove and grind it out. The heat was getting up by this time and I rolled my wetsuit down half way through to stay cool. We chased down Ben Eitelberg’s Fitness Locker team pretty quickly and then took the rest of the leg to reel in team SKBS (who eventually finished 3rd).Both of our teams transitioned together in joint 4th position on the beach for the next short 400m swim leg. It was *so* good to get back into the water.

But here’s where our race turned. I had felt a bit dehydrated towards the end of the long run and so took on a few mouthfuls of lake water as I swam. Mmmmm it felt good. (All of my open water swim training has been in salt water…) A few more mouthfuls. Then climbing out of the water both of my legs just cramped up everywhere….electrolyte balance had gone to shit.

Team SKBS disappeared off along the beach as I struggled to move my legs at all without twinges of cramp. If it wasn’t my calf, it was the hamstring, then the adductor, in both legs…

Dan taking on electrolytes

So our last third of the race was basically all about my pain and Dan’s patience. It’s a pretty unforgiving, winding track back to Wanaka town which goes up and down and up and down… we managed to get a few running sections where I just ground it out, trying to adjust my legs into the most efficient running motion so that they wouldn’t keep cramping. But we were slow.

Dan was pretty amazing — kept pepping me up, bantering, checking how I was going for nutrition. We soon realized that the competitive race was over for us both and now we just had to get over the finish line together. He’s a dude that I’d want by my side in a situation like this — wouldn’t have managed it without him there to pull me along (mentally and physically on the swims).

To top things off, Dan’s pullbuoy cord broke along the way as well!

The swims became unbearable — in particular on the penultimate ~1km choppy leg out to Ruby Island — I found myself 500m from land either side, in total agony up and down both my legs, unable to stretch out cramped calves and hamstrings. I was literally yelling out loud in pain at times. This was the one time I seriously considered giving up and heading back in the safety boat that was right there. You start to panic a bit when your body doesn’t respond as you’re used to and you’re just floating powerless in the middle of a large body of cold water. Yet somehow my legs came right eventually and we made it out to the island, clambered along the last stretch of muddy shoreline and got back in the water for a 700m swim back to Edgewater and then a short run to the finish line. (Incidentally I remember we passed a few backmarker teams from the sprint race around this time, my apologies if I just barged past… had tunnel vision by this point…).

Finish line— 9 hours later

In the end we finished 5th in 9 hours 1min — 1 hour 25min behind the winning team of Jeff McGrath and Merv Hunger. Strava mates Ben Wolstencroft and Dave Provan from Melbourne (Team Chroma) had an awesome race and came in 2nd, much faster pace than they managed last year despite the choppy water conditions.

There weren’t so many teams in the field this year but given the way that our race panned out in the end, I’ll happily settle for 5th.

The agony and the ecstasy

The event overall had a similar positive atmosphere to last year — in particular the course marshals were amazing in their encouragement — and likewise all the competitors out for a good day in some of New Zealand’s most amazing scenery. There were fantastic crescendos of applause as the last teams of the day made it home as the evening sun went down — up to11.5 hours out on the course! Thanks to the organisers for keeping us all safe, fed and watered throughout the day.

So… I’m sitting here on Wednesday, 3 nights after the race, still struggling to walk without hobbling like I’m 90 years old. (Had a deep tissue massage today which has helped). The physio looked at my swollen ankle today — apparently running 35km on a fresh sprain didn’t do it any good. Ballooned up with fluid but it’ll come right.

Overall I’ve had mixed feelings about the race since the weekend, hence I particularly wanted to write up this race report as part-catharsis: on the one hand disappointed that after putting in months of training and preparation the race went south; disappointed that my body didn’t perform as expected; disappointed to let my teammate down (Dan writes: you didn’t let me down — it could just as easily happened to me — but rather I was so impressed by how you had the strength to finish despite all the challenges you had to deal with on the day.)

But…on the other hand I feel pretty proud just to have finished — I’ve certainly never been to such a dark place mentally as those last 10km, it’s actually heartening to know that you can just put your head down and guts it out and still not reach your limit.

Overall I think the best part of it all is what makes this young sport unique: the pairs team format. Individual multisport is such a solo pursuit — you get to celebrate your successes after a race but you never really get to share your hardships and failures alongside anyone else. Having gone through this hard, hurting race with such a strong and supportive teammate who in the end pulled me to the end is an experience that will stay with me for a long time. Thanks Dan mate, you are THE MAN!

So…overall race reflections:

  • Don’t go off too fast at the start.
  • Forget the shoes off / drybag combination for the long swims, it just causes too much hassle at transitions and isn’t worth it time-wise. Get a pullbuoy with more buoyancy instead and practice arm technique more.
  • Don’t bump your head / sprain your ankle during a race (!)
  • Keep up electrolytes and don’t drink too much lake water even if you’re thirsty
  • It’s all about your teammate

See you on the start line next year…