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Otillo Isles of Scilly Sprint Swim Run Race Report June 2018 by Dan Sawyer

Last weekend I headed to the Scilly Isles for the ÖtillÖ Isles of Scilly sprint race. I know a couple of people are interested in swimrun races, so here are my thoughts, along with a bunch of things I picked up watching and talking to people who actually knew what they were doing. Although I did the short course race, most of this would be applicable to long races as well. Some of it is obvious, some less so, I hope.

For anyone who doesn’t know, swimrun is an event where you race in pairs over multiple swims and runs, taking all you need with you (equipment, that is – there are water/energy stops). There are no neat transition areas where you leave your wetsuit and put your trainers in; you start in wetsuit and trainers and that’s how you race.

There are far fewer equipment restrictions that in triathlon: any wetsuit is fine; you can use hand paddles, pull buoys, (short) fins, etc, so long as you carry it all with you. Most people use a wetsuit with the legs cut off above the knees, and ideally with a front zip (I got a special swimrun suit for about £150 in an online sale and it was worth its wet weight in gold). Most will have some kind of pull buoy or float for their legs (which sink on the swim, thanks to the cut off suit and trainers). The most common arrangement is a pull buoy with holes drilled through and elastic straps holding it to the outside of the thigh as you run, which can just be rotated to between the legs for the swim. That’s what I used and it worked better than I could’ve hoped: once it’s on the outside you don’t even notice it.

We (my old friend Mike and I) did the sprint event. This is a lap of St Mary’s, the largest island, and includes roughly 11km trail running and 3km swimming, split into 8 swims (200m -1km) and 9 runs (200m – 2.5km). The full event is about 3 times as long and involves swimming from one island to another, up to about 2km in one swim. The tides mean that there are fairly stringent cut-offs. We saw more than one pair walking home having missed the very first cut-off. The full race doesn’t give you the option of doing the equivalent of the 16 hour Ironman: you’re either up to speed or you’re out. Luckily for us, the sprint has no cut-offs! I also understand that some other races, which are on lakes rather than the sea, have slightly easier times you have to make. As a pair of unfit and undertrained late 30s, we were perfectly fine with our decision to stick to the short course…

The first thing to say is that the race is fantastic. The atmosphere is so laid back it’s practically horizontal: the race organisers’ briefing included pointing out that only one team can win, so everybody else should make sure they enjoy it and most people took that to heart. There was lots of friendly chat all round, among competitors and locals. The locals turned out in force for both races and seem to love the event. The views as you race around the island are so stunning that we hired bikes the next day to go and look at them more fully. The sea is crystal clear, if also pretty chilly (or “bloody freezing”, as we said at the time).

It’s also hard. Really much harder than you’d think 11km running and 3km swimming should be. Unfit as we are, either of us could knock those distances off without too much trouble but this race had us both wiped out for the next couple of days, despite walking a fair bit of the rougher and steeper terrain. So my first piece of advice to anybody thinking of doing a swimrun is: be a lot fitter than you think you need to be. And train in your wetsuit: running in it works the quads and hips much more than usual, as well as contributing to some horrendous chafing on the back of the neck for many people (no chafing elsewhere, thank heavens…).

In the same vein, take your nutrition and hydration more seriously than we did. 3km swim, 11km run: we figured the two feed stations would be plenty, and no need to carb load or anything like that. Turns out that this was totally wrong. Next time I’m having some gels and/or food with me and not having the smoked trout and scrambled eggs, no matter how good it may be. They were on toast but that wasn’t enough carbs for this…

The water stations, after the first, did not provide cups. We were each given a small collapsible cup at registration and had to take it with us. ÖtillÖ take environmentalism seriously and were fed up with using thousands of disposable cups. I believe that from now on, bringing a cup or bottle will be required. Personally, I plan to take a small bottle of water anyway, to rinse my mouth and face after the longer and rougher swims. Running with a salty mouth and face was no fun.

Train in cold water. Particularly, train getting into cold water after a hard run. The change not only gave me cramp on several occasions, it also meant that on the first swim I had issues breathing and ended up treading water for a couple of minutes, panicking like I’d never swum in open water before.

Every article I’ve seen says train with your race partner. Mine lives in Yorkshire, so we’ve not done that. On the other hand, we know that we run and swim at similar speed and neither was much interested in pushing the pace beyond what the other could do. Given the opportunity, i think training together would be a good idea, partly for pacing and partly to practice transitions and tethering.

In swimrun you have to stay within 10m of your partner. Many, if not most, ensure this by means of a tether, which is basically a piece of elastic cord with a clip at each end. Some people run with it as well, most don’t, at least for the longer runs. Some people actually use it as a tow line in the swims, but for us it was just there to stop is getting separated. We stayed clipped for the 200m runs but unclipped for anything longer. In hindsight, we wouldn’t clip in for every swim. The longer and rougher ones it’s a good idea but there were some 300-400m swims where we were perfectly capable of swimming together and all the tether did was catch in thick seaweed, making us have to stop and free it. In fact, seaweed is an issue generally. Try to spot a clearer route before you start, as it’s easy to find yourself really tangled in places.

Also, don’t think that the shorter ones are going to be easy: we had one 200m swim with pretty epic waves rolling in from the side, which was probably the toughest swim I’ve done.

Sighting is important as well; more so than in the average triathlon. If you’re doing the long race, swimming 2-3km to another island, you really want to go straight for the exit marker!

Practise taking the top of your wetsuit on and off, as well as running with it up but unzipped. On each run you need to decide whether you’re going to “cab down” (the jargon term for removing the top half of the wetsuit) or not. Doing so makes running more comfortable but is associated with faff at each end. That faff is made worse by the bib. You have to have your bib on the outside at all times. It’s pretty close fitting, so doesn’t create drag, but it complicates taking your wetsuit up and down. I did the first run cabbed down but didn’t bother after that. On the longer event, many people kept their suits up even for the final 7km run.

Most serious competitors use hand paddles. I used neoprene webbed gloves for a couple of swims but otherwise they stayed in my pockets. Which is one point: whatever you use, you have to carry on the runs.

Mike and I eventually finished in around 3 hours 45, well down the list but we’d gone to complete, not compete. It was a terrific long weekend away (the travel becomes part of the race experience when the ferry to and from the Isles is largely full of other competitors) although an expensive one: the local hospitality industry is well aware that they have you over a barrel. I definitely plan to go back, probably in a couple of years, once I’ve done a couple of longer events on the mainland. Thoroughly recommend both the race format and the event itself.