As I sit down to write this report, four days after the race, I am still fizzing with excitement about the whole experience. I know I am going to struggle to articulate the sheer beauty of the landscapes, the peaceful joy of the swims, and the total destructive power of the hills. I will give it my best shot.
The build up to my A race this year has not been as smooth as it might have been, with a hip injury that’s plagued my running all year. On Thursday, the arrival of an untimely cold didn’t help my preparation, but I was feeling positive and determined ahead of the race, and resolved to just get on with it, and enjoy it.
On Friday night, Zoe and I went to the race briefing at Keswick School. Looking around the room, we did the classic insecure comparisons. Slim racing snakes everywhere, Ironman tattoos on every other calf. Zoe had a little panic: “Where are the other slow people?”
I had to remind her that we were not out of place in this room. We’re both Ironman athletes; we’ve trained hard for this event; we might not be about to win it, but we deserved to at least be in the room. We knew we’d be closer to the cut offs than we’d be to the winners, but we belonged here.
Friday was our first experience of the excellent organisation that went into making this event happen. The race was run with military efficiency, with the obviously complex logistics of the race appearing completely seamless to the athletes. Whilst the race was professionally executed by the team of marshals, it also had a pleasantly amateur feel to it. I mean that as a compliment: the people were all friendly and encouraging, the feed stations were nothing more complex than a couple of pop up tables, the check points were carried out by marshals with a clipboard and pen, the other competitors (at least at our end of the field) were sociable and chatty. They somehow managed to make this epic endeavour feel like a local club race.
On Saturday morning, we gathered in Keswick to be bused across to the start just west of Loweswater. It was a twenty minute drive in full kit with a bus full of nervous excitement. My usual pre race stress – finding car parking, being on time – had now disappeared as we were in the hands of the organisers, and even Zoe seemed calm. She seems to have conquered her customary pre race jitters this year.
We were decanted from the buses into a field, with a path ominously disappearing into the hills beyond. We shuffled around trying to keep warm. The weather was overcast, and it even started to rain for a few minutes. Standing around in a thin neoprene layer, I was bloody freezing. I needn’t have worried, although I didn’t know it at the time, because the rest of the day would be spent trying to cool down rather than heat myself up.
I knew that the field would thin out quickly enough, but as we were called to the start, it was very crowded, as the 200 pairs of runners tried to align themselves on a narrow track. It reminded me of the start of Pontefract Parkrun, except everyone was wearing goggles on their heads. We hung back a little and followed the crowd as it snaked up the path. The first couple of km were pleasantly undulating, and we had to pause a couple of times as the runners moved through a kissing gate. So far, so good.
Let’s talk about wee. I had really needed to go at the start, but the queue for the three portaloos had been extensive, and I had decided to hang on till the first swim. There are two types of triathlete: those who are happy to wee in the lake, and those who are liars. However, as we jogged up and down the stone tracks, things were becoming urgent. We could see the swim approaching, but there was already a lot to think about for our first transition: making sure everything was zipped up, goggles on, paddles out. I didn't want to be messing about having a wee too. So I made a decision. There’s no way to sugar coat this: I pissed myself. Just went for a wee in my wetsuit while running.
DON’T YOU JUDGE ME! It’s practically impossible to get out of the suit, so you have to wee in it. What's really the difference between doing it in the water and doing it just before you reach the water? Well, I’ll tell you the difference: about 15°. With no lake water to dilute the wee, it’s like having a bloody kettle boil down your leg. Alright, I won’t talk about wee any more, except to say that, precedent thus set, I casually pissed myself a further three times through the day. By the end of the race, it was just sloshing out of me like a broken tap. Funny how quickly you can get used to new experiences isn’t it?
We knew the first swim was coming up because the route took us to Loweswater before we ran along the shore for a short distance, meaning we could see the leaders already in the water. Throughout the day, we checked our progress against the route card, which we’d transcribed onto Zoe’s pull buoy. We’d written the distance of each leg, run and swim, as well as noting the location of the feed stations, and the time limits to be applied at each one. This really helped for keeping on track later in the race as the crowd thinned out.
The first swim was a little busy but not a patch on the start at The Outlaw last week. Over the course of the day, I would manage to launch into a swim section without goggles on; I did one short leg without paddles, which I had left in my pocket because I am a forgetful moron; and I did – despite having done this once in training and promised myself it would never happen again – jump into one stretch of water without zipping up my wetsuit, becoming waterlogged and spluttering to a halt within seconds.
This first one though, with concentration still working, went very smoothly. Kitting up and diving headlong into Loweswater, we were swimming. The lake was beautiful. It was cold, but refreshing rather than breathtaking, and this short 400m swim along the bank was a lovely relaxing start to the swim section.
Throughout the day, the swim entries were marked with a white flag, and exits with a red. This was a simple system that even I couldn’t get wrong, and generally the flags were very visible. On the quieter lakes, the red flags stood out against the green background and were easy to sight. Only at the end, when we reached Derwent Water, did it become a little trickier. More of that later.
The route took us from Loweswater to Crummock Water, which we ran around and swam across a couple of times. The second entry into Crummock was via a spectacular rocky outcrop into the lake. As we approached it, and saw the teams ahead of us clambering down into the water, it was one of those moments of clarity where I caught myself thinking “Wow! What an incredible race this is.” In the briefing it had been described as a “Wilderness Race” and now I could see what that meant.
Getting out of the water at the other end of this one was tricky as a similarly rocky exit faced us. I managed to clamber up the side and turned to offer my hand to Zoe. She steadfastly ignored me and stubbornly climbed out on her own. Several of the swim exits were tricky. Apart from this climb out of the water, most were shallower rocky exits. The fact we were wearing trainers meant that crunching across the smaller rocks was not a problem, but the vague dizziness that comes at the end of a swim, combined with slippery rocks and the odd larger boulder beneath the surface made it a little treacherous. On one exit, Zoe launched herself into a vertical position before banging her toe against a larger rock and falling flat on her face with a big “OOOHH!” and a splash. Comedy gold.
Crummock Water was gorgeous. There was a wind sweeping down the valley which created a bit of chop. The longest swim leg of 1km was tough but also great fun. As I stayed to Zoe’s right, another pair overtook on her left, and the spray created by all three of them splashed across me in the wind. It felt like I was in a North Sea squall, not a quiet lake in the middle of nowhere. The water was unbelievably clear. These lakes are very deep, so you can’t see the bottom, but as this other pair passed by us, I could see them through the water at a distance of about 15m, their orange wetsuit sleeves bright and clear.
The next run took us up the first fell section. None of this race so far had been flat, but this but was seriously serious. We had stopped at the feed station and topped up our water and food, then set off up the hill. Within a minute or two, we and everyone else around us were walking.
We seemed to be doing okay, and slowly overhauled a couple of other teams as our walking outpaced their walking. I was never concerned about being last – couldn’t give a monkey’s about that – but I was seeking reassurance regarding the time cut offs that would come at each feed station. Although we knew all the distances, the terrain made it almost impossible to estimate how long these run sections would take. I really had no idea, so by seeing several other pairs behind us on the hill, that put my mind at rest that we weren’t drifting way off the pace.
As we neared the top, a couple of very strong looking lads thundered past us, and we were alarmed that the wheels must have come off. Fortunately, we quickly realised that they were the leading team in the sprint race that had started an hour after us. They had slightly different coloured vests so we were able to identify them as they, and several other pairs subsequently roared by.
I just used an elusive phrase: “As we neared the top.” Nearing the top became a recurring theme for the day, as we reached a peak for which we’d been aiming, only to find it revealed yet more climbing beyond. The pattern was: “Oh look, there's the top. We're nearly at the top. We made it to the top. Oh for fuck's sake, this isn't the top. Look up there.” Repeat.
When we did finally reach the top of Rannerdale Knotts, we were rewarded with some beautiful views. The weather was overcast, with the sun breaking through occasionally to overheat us, but there was no impact on visibility, and the clear air allowed us to see far into the valleys stretching away into the distance. Loweswater was sparkling below us, and we now plummeted off the side of the fell to the water.
This first descent gave us a taste of what was to come. Loose rocks and wet grass made the route hair raising for inexperienced fell runners like us. Even the faster sprint competitors, although still overtaking us, were picking their way down very gingerly. The descent overall was not much quicker than the climb up had been. We completed this 5km “run” leg in just under 45 minutes.
Pam and The Boy were waiting at the bottom to cheer us back into the water, and we had a sweaty hug before plunging back into Crummock for our final crossing before a couple of km of running to take us to the next checkpoint on the shore of Buttermere.
We were still forty minutes ahead of cut off when we reached this feed station, and we breathed a sigh of relief as we stuffed ourselves with food. The feed stations were excellent, and their contents escalated as the race progressed. At first, we had bananas and jelly babies. At the second station, they had added Tribe energy bars. This one had Gu gels, which I’d never tried before. Whilst I acknowledge I was hungry and would have enjoyed anything, these little sachets of viscous gel are the sweetest things I have ever eaten. The consistency of melted chocolate, the Salted Caramel flavour were just a concentrated hit of sugar. Suitably buzzing, we plunged into Buttermere.
If Crummock was clear, Buttermere was even more so. The warnings about freezing temperatures were misguided, although it was certainly fresh. For the first swim leg here, we stayed close to shore, and we could see every rock and weed on the lake bed. The water was so clear that I even chanced a drink, feeling safe to swallow a few mouthfuls of Buttermere as we went along.
My only concern as we criss crossed Buttermere was a bit of chafing on my neck. This had been completely self inflicted a little earlier. One of the safety rules was that we had to have a whistle to attract attention if we had a problem in the water, and therefore the whistle had to be accessible whilst swimming. I couldn't wedge it in a pocket, as that would make it impossible to retrieve in extreme circumstances, so I had it simply hanging around my neck inside the wetsuit. If I did have a problem while swimming, I could just pull it up through the collar of the suit and blow furiously.
The problem had come in the first swim when I zipped up and started swimming. The string around my neck had popped up under my wetsuit collar on the left side. I felt it immediately, and by the end of that first 400m swim, I had a sore patch. The lesson was well learned, and I made sure the string was safely below collar height from then on, but the damage was done, and by now my wetsuit was rubbing painfully.
The third crossing of Buttermere took us to the finish line of the shorter race. Sprint competitors relaxed around the exit, congratulating each other and drinking water. We stopped briefly, as this doubled up as a feed station for us, before we tackled the monster run leg over Dale Head. This station was notable for the presence of salted new potatoes. I realise that sounds odd, but I have to tell you that the combination of salt and carbs was the best thing I have ever had in my mouth. We were all raving about spuds for about an hour afterwards. Meanwhile, I pocketed a few Gu gels for the long run, we filled our water bottles, and we hopped over a stile to begin the climb.
Utterly absurd laughable steepness. It’s difficult to convey in words just how steep it really was. There were regular sections where we were on all fours, using our hands to claw at the rocks and pull ourselves up. For a stretch, the path followed the line of a metal mesh fence, which provided good hand holds to drag ourselves forward like a crap sideways rope ladder. My Garmin beeps every km and gives a lap time. This first km from the feed station took 31 minutes.
It just seemed to be never ending. We would reach what we had thought was the top, and then further climbing appeared before us. We had three and a half hours to complete this 14km section before cut off but at this rate I was getting worried.
By now it was getting really hot. On this uphill section, I had sweat flowing into my eyes and forming drops on the end of my nose. We unzipped our wetsuits, and tried to cool down, but we ran out of water within the first hour, and so it was tough going. Zoe completed the entire event wearing her swim cap and goggles on her head. I realise this makes for less to carry, but I had removed my hat within five minutes of the start as I felt my head overheating.
As we reached the first summit, we took a right and followed the ridge line towards Dale Head. Having never been a hill walker this experience was all new to me. I had expected this mythical ridge line to be a lovely flat run across the top of the fell, but no. It veered steeply down and up, and we couldn't get any sustained pace going.
The treacherous downhill sections were often little more than a scramble, and we found ourselves descending at an even slower pace than we had come up the other side. Some of those teams we'd been climbing with started to pull away from us, and our inexperience on this sort of terrain was really showing.
As we struggled down, a friendly Geordie fell runner whipped past us, just out on his own for a bit of fun. I saw him coming, and stopped to watch. He just seemed to skip across the rocks, apparently falling down the hillside, simply controlling the speed and direction of the fall. It was amazing to see, and put into perspective how slowly we were progressing over these technical sections. Unlike running on the flat and trudging uphill, this is really not so much about fitness, but a learned set of skills. I we ever do more of these events, this is something we simply have to practice.
Trying to run the "flattish" sections was all well and good, but sometimes those sections were little more than 100m between one murderous climb and the next precipitous drop. I was getting really stressed now about the cut off. If we did the second half of this leg in the same time as the first, we wouldn't make it. Add to that the fact that we'd run out of water, and that we were now exhausted. I was so far out of my comfort zone that I considered pissing myself to be a little treat.
I started grousing about the fact we weren't going to make the cut off. Zoe told me to belt up, and we pushed on. I also necked three Salted Caramel Gu gels and felt as if I'd smoked some crack, so that picked me up.
The saving grace of this dark phase of the race was that the views from up here were unbelievable. Up on the ridge we could see the full length of the valleys on both sides, with the three bodies of water we'd been swimming in that morning dotting away into the distance.
Back to the task in hand, we knew we had to really push ourselves to get down off this hill in time. We ran as hard as we could wherever we could, tumbling down the descents for as long as we safely could, slowly picking our way through the rockier sections, before running again whenever the surface became a little more forgiving.
The final descent off the hill was steep but mercifully not as steep as the climb had been a couple of hours earlier. When we got down to lake level, we then had a short distance to run along smooth and relatively flat Lakeland roads to reach the checkpoint. We made it with about fifteen minutes to spare. The relief was palpable from us and the other teams who were taking a well deserved break and comparing war stories.
All that was now left was a swim across Derwent Water to the finish line. We slowly jogged the 2km to the water entry point. Although we were now rehydrated, and this was a gentle flat path along the water's edge, we were absolutely shattered. That Dale Edge run leg, as a standalone event, would have easily qualified as the hardest thing I have ever done, even forgetting what else we’d done today.
The final stretch was a 600m swim to an island in the middle of Derwent Water, a walk across said island, and then a 900m swim to the far bank, where another short km of running would take us to the finishing line. Seven hours earlier, that would have been simple enough, but it now felt like an awfully long way.
Derwent is a larger body of water than the others that we'd crossed today, and it's a little busier, with motorised boats steaming up and down. Although we had safety cover, and certainly never felt in any danger, it all felt a little less wild, and so this swim was a bit more workmanlike than earlier legs.
The wind had also returned and there was a real swell for this section that made sighting more difficult. We made it to the island without incident, but then had some trouble traversing it. The trees that made up the island's perimeter were tricky to pick our way through, and then we wandered vaguely in the right direction through a wooded area before it opened up onto a campsite. Apologising for marching through someone's camp, we got a lovely waft of barbecue smoke, and were pointed in the right direction by the weary campers, who had presumably had the same conversation a hundred and fifty times in the last couple of hours.
Our final entry into the water, and this swim felt like the toughest of the lot. The wind, and therefore the waves, were behind us this time, which meant sighting the red flag was difficult. I had to keep stopping to reassure myself that we were going the right way. For a long time, the tiny red flag on the far edge didn't seem to be getting any closer, but gradually we made it to the shallow pebbled shore.
After adjusting ourselves, we attempted to jog towards the finish, but nothing in our legs wanted to work anymore. I don't know if there's any science to back this up, but my theory is that we'd worked our legs almost to destruction, then spent forty minutes in the water effectively putting our feet up. That enforced rest for our legs seemed to have just hammered the final nail into the coffin.
Instead of running, we route marched the short distance to the park where the finish line awaited us. As we came into sight of the finish flags, a large crowd of finishers and supporters filled the field. The Boy appeared from the crowd and grabbed our hands to cross the line. We managed a weak jog across the line for the sake of the cameras, and we were done. Nine and half hours of effort.
A word on kit selection, and how that all worked. The Zone 3 Swimrun wetsuit was excellent, but we ended up going without the neoprene calf guards. I found these too tight, and they caused me a little pain whilst running. My Innov8 trail shoes and Drymax socks did a terrific job, with no blisters or hotspots, even after nine hours. The shoes did a great job of gripping on all terrains, both early in the day when it was raining, and later on the sun baked rocks.
The finger paddles we opted for were perfect. There were some teams who were using large full hand paddles, and I am sure that would lead to faster swim speeds if you were planning to be more competitive. The beauty of the smaller paddles was that they fit nicely into a pocket whilst running. It would have been so annoying to have to run the whole thing with dinner plate sized paddles swinging around on the wrists.
A life saving tip was the mini karabiner which I used to hold my pull buoy in place. Whether on the outside for running or the inside for swimming, clipping it to my waistbelt meant that it couldn't work its way down my leg as I bounced around. This had been annoying during training, and it was one less thing to worry about on the day.
I used a collapsible flask for water, which I clipped to my belt when full, but could stuff in my back pocket when it was empty. This worked well, in the sense that it was unobtrusive and I could tidy it out of the way when I didn't need it, but there was a problem of capacity, and we were really thirsty by the end of the Dale Head run.
If I were doing this race again next week, and lord knows my quads would have something to say about that, I would go with the same kit, but perhaps pack a second collapsible flask just for the long run.
The whole Breca experience was incredible, but the race was a game of two halves. The first half, till the final exit of Buttermere - where the sprint race ended - was a tough adventure race that involved some technical running and some beautiful swimming. The second half, consisting of the brutal fell run over Dale Head and the weary swim across Derwent, was more of a trial of strength. Strength of body and mind.
The team format worked very well for us, although there wasn't a lot of chatting as we raced to get down from the high fell. In general though, we kept each other's spirits high and I'm pleased I could share the experience with Zoe.
This was, without a doubt, a really bloody tough race; but I would certainly recommend it to anyone with a liking for endurance events and an adventurous spirit. It was, in my opinion, a tougher challenge than an Ironman triathlon. That said, the sprint distance would offer an alternative for someone who wants to dip their toe into the clear water.
Thanks to everyone for their support over the last few months. I am always telling people that it’s important to enjoy the journey. In this case, both the training and the race itself have been a lot of fun, and given me a real taste for events that are slightly out of the ordinary. What’s next? Any suggestions?