Swimruns are now a firm fixture in the adventure race calendar: over the coming months there’s Breca Buttermere in the Lake District, LoveSwimRun in Snowdonia, Ötillö’s Isles of Scilly race, and many more.
But you don’t have to head to the hills or remote coastlines to experience this fusion of trail running and open-water swimming. Swimruns are now popping up in more accessible urban areas, with shorter (and cheaper) courses, appealing to both newcomers and the experienced alike. On a chilly and drizzly evening last week, I took part in a one such swimrun around south-west London’s Tooting Common and in Tooting Bec lido.
The event was organised by South London Swimming Club, along with events promoter Total Motion. The club’s Mandy Worsley explained: “We wanted to create an exciting new event so that swimmers and runners – and especially younger people – in the city could experience this fast growing endurance sport.”
The sprint course consisted of 1km of swimming and just under 9km running. This was split into four swims and four runs of differing lengths, with competitors alternating between the two disciplines.
As with all swimruns, the same outfit was worn throughout the race – you remained in your wetsuit during the runs and kept trainers on for the swim. Pull buoys, hand paddles and even flippers were allowed, but the one rule was that you had to finish the race with every piece of equipment you started with.
Events in more extreme areas insist on teams of two – both for safety reasons and an ethos of encouraging each other. Smaller events such as Tooting allow solo entrants, although around half of the 50 competitors were in teams.
The mass start swim was a bit of scrum, with the added danger of being kicked with a trainer or smacked on the head by someone’s paddle. But the 90-metre pool soon spread out the field, with the more experienced powering ahead with their paddles.
It was then a quick climb out and, with no complicated transition other than twisting your pull buoy from between the legs, straight into the running. To begin with I felt ridiculous running through the park in a tight wetsuit, swimming hat and goggles still on my head. Not surprisingly there were plenty of bemused looks from dog walkers and people out for their evening stroll, but soon enough I was just concentrating on the race.
Approaching the pool for the second swim, the pace was broken by stepping through a shoe dip, ensuring only clean trainers entered the pool.
And so the race continued. I managed to do some overtaking on the swim sections, but was then passed on the running, going past them again in the pool. I noticed some competitors were wearing swimrun-specific wetsuits with different thicknesses of neoprene, zips at the front and even a whistle. But there was also a motley collection of tri-suits and battered old wetsuits with the legs cut down. For newcomers to the sport, the cheapish summer models sold by the likes of Decathlon are perfect, as these are thin enough to allow enough flexibility and movement to run in.
Likewise, there are special swimrun shoes which drain quickly and have grippy soles – but for an urban run, regular trainers with a trail sole are fine. A wise investment, though, is a good pair of socks so as to prevent blisters when running with wet feet.
Most competitors finished the course in under an hour and a quarter (the winner took 58 minutes), and there was an excited buzz after the race.
Patricia Richardson, a swimrun veteran and finalist in the prestigious Ötillö, found it “fabulous” and a good training exercise. Chatting to members of south London’s Windrush triathlon club, all of whom were new to the sport, the biggest surprise had been in the transition.
Club member Laura Addis said: “Compared with triathlons, there was no stress of a transition where you have to get changed as fast as you can. However, there was also no let up, cardiovascularly, which made it really tough. As soon as you were out of the water you had to run hard.”
This short swimrun had done its job in preparing the group for planned future events, with a number realising they needed trail shoes with better grips, plus more practice running in a wetsuit.