Enduroman 3-2-1 Swim
Enduroman Run to Max 48
Okay let’s start with a brief explanation of what the hell I had entered. The Enduroman Festival of Ultra Events is a long weekend gathering of the long distance triathlon community organised by Ed and Chris Ette that involves a range of ultra distance events. This year’s headline race was a continuous triple iron distance race, but on the undercard were a 12 mile swim, a 200 mile run, and a variety of other events.
(It should be noted here that Enduroman’s events are all measured in miles which has caused me a great deal of anguish as I have been feverishly converting to kilometres all weekend.)
I had entered the 3-2-1 Swim, which was a three day event involving a triple, double and single iron distance swim across the three days. However, because I didn’t want to get bored in the breaks between swims, I had also entered the Run to Max 48. This is a pretty simple concept that involves running as many laps of the 1.1 mile circuit as you can in forty eight hours. My plan was to swim in the mornings, run in the afternoons, sleep at night, and see how far that took me.
Swim Day One – 11.4km (4:09.55 @ 2.12 per 100m)
A 12 noon start on Friday gave us plenty of time to get ourselves organised. It was a small field taking to the water, with just me and my Dutch friend Koen van Meeuwen in the 3-2-1 event; and 6 triathletes starting the continuous triple. Consequently, it was the most leisurely start to a race I’ve ever seen with everyone casually leaving space for the others and finding their own rhythm. I was near the back of the field, but it was no concern to me, and I just wanted to stay in clear water. Later, as swimmers lapped me on the relatively short 295m course, everyone was incredibly respectful, and gave me a wide berth.
The small lake meant that our line kept us close to the edge, and it was possible to stand up along most of the course. In one corner of the lake, we had to swim through a timing funnel, marked by small pink buoys and manned by patient and generous volunteers who were marking off laps for five hours. This posed a challenge at first, as I had to figure out how to shout “SEVEN!” whilst not breaking stroke.
I got better at it as the weekend progressed, but it took a little bit of breath control, and I worried that I wasn’t shouting loud enough. (Ben later confirmed that he could hear me from the other side of the lake – too quiet has never been one of my problems.)
Ben provided excellent support all weekend, crewing for me by the lake, and looking after me on the run too. During this four hour swim, the weather turned ugly and the heavens opened. It didn’t make any difference to me, but every time I went past the crew station, I could see Ben and the others apparently wearing more and more clothes with every lap.
Although I had been prepared for cold water, it was probably a couple of degrees warmer than we’d feared. I still wore neoprene boots and hat every day, but I never felt that my core was cold. On this first day, I abandoned the idea of counting all the way to 39 laps, and instead had set my watch screen to just tell me how long I’d been swimming, with a plan to stop every hour for nutrition. I had a flask of hot tea, but not boiling because I learned at Brutal that a flask keeps boiling things boiling and it’s too hot to drink! Each hour, I had a small cup of tea, and a Gu gel. These gels are perfect for swimming as they are really thick and viscous so they’re quick, but they don’t feel heavy on your stomach. They are also CRAZY SWEET and feel like a hit of cocaine when you are knackered. Just what I needed to get me back in the water and moving.
Having stopped after one hour, I started to get some pain in my lower back during the second hour, and pulled in for another break at about 1:45. I did a bit of stretching, which seemed to do the trick, and I worked on keeping my head lower in the water so as to minimise any arching of my back. The pain abated, but I ended up doing a lot of back stretches that evening.
A quick word on swim technique. I have done a lot more swimming this winter than in previous off seasons. My 400m time has reduced considerably, and my top end speed is now much higher. However, I have done very little endurance swimming. (When I say very little, I mean that I have done one ninety minute swim, and the rest have been one hour sessions.) I was excited to see how my improved technique would adapt to longer distance, and whether it would be sustainable.
I focused on keeping my elbow high in the pull phase, and finishing every stroke well so that I wasn’t wasting energy. It’s difficult – impossible – to concentrate for that long so I occasionally caught myself lazily recovering my hand a bit early, but generally kept my stroke economical and I was lapping initially at around six minutes, which dropped to a maximum of 6:30 by the end.
As I got into the fourth hour, I stopped at the lap counters to be told I had nine circuits to go. I was conscious of one of the triple competitors stopping and standing up. I passed him a couple of times and wondered what was happening. Fortunately I didn’t see that he was actually being sick as he was swimming, and having a really hard time. I remember having a similar problem in the sea at Barcelona, and he had my sympathy.
My arms were really tired now, and every stroke felt like a tug of war, but I could count down the nine laps, and I knew that I was going to finish. Doing the distance calculations in my head, I gave myself a silent congratulations as I went through 10km and into the uncharted waters of my longest ever swim.
At the end, I received a friendly hand out of the water from Dan Earthquake, who looked after us all weekend, and stumbled across to the timing sensor with my tag to stop the clock for my official time. Right next to the lake is a toilet and shower block, ostensibly for the campsite, but right now perfectly situated for me to wash away the mud and silt, and warm up, struggling to wash my hair, or indeed anything else that required me to lift my arms.
Run Day One – 12 Laps (21.3km @ 8.15 per km)
The remainder of our small Wakefield contingent was Suzy and Malachi. Suzy is a veteran of these events, and a real inspiring figure on my journey, whilst Malachi is a veteran of crewing for Suzy! She had entered the same Run to Max 48 event as me, but wasn’t swimming this weekend. That’s not because she’s too lazy, but rather because she had cycled down to the event before it started.
Avon Tyrrell is in Dorset, near Bournemouth, about 400km from Wakefield, so Suzy had been on the bike for more than 24 hours before she arrived.
Her run was already well underway by the time I started. I’d eaten and had a short nap after my long swim, so made my way down to the run start for about 7pm. You’re allowed to trigger your 48 hours whenever you want on Friday afternoon, so I was the final starter, and the others had already got lots of miles on the board.
In the small courtyard of the main Avon Tyrrell building, the organisers had created a two lane turning circle for cyclists and runners respectively. After every lap, athletes would come into the courtyard, round the circle, over the timing mat, and then back out into the world. This makes for a more sociable event, and makes life much easier for athletes, with a central location for drinks and food.
I waited here for Suzy, and ran my first lap with her. In broad terms, the 1.1 mile loop could be split into three: a steep downhill section along a firm dirt track; a relatively flat but gnarly, rooty path around the lake; then a steep climb back up to the turning circle. I followed Suzy’s lead and fell into a pattern that I’d keep for the weekend: run down the hill with as much pace as I could spare without overtaxing my legs, push around the lake – this became the hardest section as I grew tired – and then power walk up the other side.
I was a little faster than Suzy so pressed on, although she always managed to somehow get back in front of me as I faffed around with food and loo stops. Remember the story of the tortoise and the hare? Where the tortoise goes relentlessly towards the finish, and the hare skips past only to stop for a poo every twenty minutes?
I forget the details.
I fell into a routine that saw me averaging four laps per hour, including all the faffing, and held that pace for the whole weekend. Tonight though, as the sun dropped and we put on our headtorches, I felt good. By the third hour, I felt familiar enough with the terrain and kept running until 10pm before getting some sleep ahead of tomorrow’s swim.
Swim Day Two – 7.6km (2:50.00 @ 2.14 per 100m)
I hadn’t slept terribly well. The room and the beds were fine: functional rather than luxurious, but no complaints. My problem had been that, every time I stirred or turned over in the night, the pain in my shoulders would bite, and my sleep would be disturbed.
The second day’s swim started at 9am along with all the double iron competitors and some 2-1 swimmers. That gave me plenty of time to eat and digest a full cooked breakfast before wandering out to the turning circle to watch the triple competitors come through on their bikes. There were only four left now, and they’d been riding through the night.
I was feeling more nervous this morning than I had yesterday. Obviously I knew I could swim this shorter distance, but I was starting it from the compromised position of being absolutely knackered and with trashed shoulders. I hoped they would loosen up once I got moving, and they did, but I found it tough going from the start, whereas yesterday I had got a couple of hours into it before it started to drag.
I stuck to my plan of stopping each hour for nutrition. I was pleased for Ben the weather was better today, although the sun brought its own problems. As I sucked down my gel, I became aware of buzzing mosquitos. “Oh that’s annoying,” I mused, to dirty looks from the various crew members lakeside, who I now noticed were all wearing hoods and had collars turned up to protect themselves from the swarm.
On the plus side, I didn’t have any back pain today, and I think a bit of bedroom yoga had helped. (Incidentally, I know “bedroom yoga” sounds like a euphemism for sex in a Jilly Cooper novel, but I mean I actually did fifteen minutes of actual yoga in my actual bedroom.)
More problematic was my left shoulder, which really started to hurt in the third hour. The general achy tiredness was manageable, and that came with every stroke pull, but this new pain, in my rotator cuff at the front of the shoulder, came when my arm recovered over the water between strokes.
Ben says I was a lot less chatty at the finish today, and I knew this pain was a problem. In the shower, I remembered a similar rotator cuff pull I’d had during the winter which had led to two weeks off swimming. I only had twenty hours before the next swim! Nevertheless, I felt positive, and I knew that I could muddle through 3.8km. I would breaststroke if necessary. Despite the pain, I felt positive and strong.
Run Day Two – 16 Laps (28.3km @ 9.01 per km)
After lunch, I got myself out onto the run course again, and kept up the 15 minute laps, barring a couple of breaks. After nine laps, we stopped for dinner. We’d prepaid for meals at the activity centre, and it was good to eat some real food in amongst the gels and jelly babies.
Suzy was keen to get back on the course so we walked a lap, I had an inevitable toilet stop, and then I was back into the run walk rhythm.
The mantra that I repeated to myself as I looped around (and annoyingly to Suzy every time I saw her) was, “I’m nailing this.” And it felt like I was. It was a positive affirmation that kept me going forward. As I write that down here for you to read, I know it sounds a bit egotistical. But in the moment, it’s nothing more than positive self reinforcement. An important way to reassure myself that things are going according to plan.
With the earliest start on day three, a 5am alarm would be required. Tonight then, I stopped running before it got dark, and retired to the room for more yoga and more staring at my wetsuit willing it to dry.
Swim Day Three – 3.8km (1:20.07 @ 2.07 per 100m)
This morning was much busier in the lake, with all the single and half Ironman competitors starting their race, although busy is a relative term as there were still only about twenty swimmers in the water. Koen and I glanced at each other like two combat veterans amongst a platoon of new recruits, hanging back a little to let the keener racers make their faster starts.
Among the other swimmers was Ben, who was today racing the half distance triathlon. This meant I was without my right hand man for this swim, but I had decided against a hot flask this morning, and we’d lined up gels and a water bottle on the jetty. I was swimming with an attitude of “This is only a single. It’ll be fine.” When you have someone running around after you, there’s an element of guilt so I was really pleased Ben was going to get to compete for himself today.
My rotator cuff pain had not gone, but I could move my shoulder freely now, so I had seen Sue at the medical tent and she’d given me a couple of Ibuprofen. I am not a fan of taking painkillers to race, but I figured it was just an hour and a half of swimming, then I wouldn’t have to use my shoulder again for the weekend.
To spoil the end of this story, the pain lessened and seemed to dissipate entirely by the end of the swim. I was worried that the painkillers were masking something, but we’re only talking about a couple of anti inflammatories, not morphine. Curiously, the pain didn’t return after the race and it seemed as though it’d just healed itself! I can’t really explain this – I have speculated out loud that the body finds alternative pathways and perhaps uses different muscle groups, but honestly that sounds as much like bullshit to me as it does to you. All I know is that, after the race, whilst my shoulders ached, and were certainly tired, there was no longer any pain that felt like a muscle pull.
All of this meant that I felt incredibly positive throughout this shorter swim. I counted down the 13 laps without losing focus or having to check in with the counters. I’d planned a stop after 8 or 9 laps, but with no Ben waiting for me, I just pressed on and didn’t bother. When I hit ten, and had less than a kilometre to go, I actually sped up. Feeling bullish, I got up close to a threshold pace and held it comfortably. The last half lap I was sprinting! Not that I was racing anyone, as pretty much everyone else was out of the lake and onto their bikes, but my mind was racing as hard as my body. “I AM NAILING THIS!”
I’ll get to the run shortly, but this positive energy followed me out of the water and carried me through the rest of the day. I will try to reflect on where it came from, because if I can replicate that feeling then it’s worth a hundred technique sessions.
I had more in the tank, and felt like I could have kept going indefinitely, but was delighted to get out to find Dan and Koen waiting for me. I am shamelessly proud of taking second place in the 3-2-1 despite there only being two competitors – a silver medal well earned.
Run Day Three – 22 Laps (39.0km @ 8.39 per km)
For the third consecutive day, I had forgotten to take my shower gel down to the water, and so had a third shower that involved little more than rinsing and swearing. Nevertheless, with an earlier start and a shorter distance, I was done, dusted, fed and ready to run before 10am.
I had planned to do a little more running each day, to tally up with each day’s shorter swim, and was hoping to run for five hours (20 laps) to extend the pattern of three on Friday and four on Saturday.
Perhaps inspired by some of the longer distance runners, I started thinking about limiting beliefs. I had come here expecting my running to be limited by a lingering ankle injury. “This weekend is all about the swimming. The running is just to stop me getting bored in between.” That’s what I had been saying to everyone. In fact my running was more likely to be limited by the fact I believed it would be.
As I kept going on the Sunday, boring into a steady routine, I dismissed the mild discomfort of my ankle, rather than choosing to interpret it as the onset of inevitable injury. At some point, I realised I could just keep going, and would be able to do so until I didn’t want to any more. That was a vital psychological breakthrough.
In the 48 hour event, Suzy was already 30 laps ahead of me, and three competitors would make it beyond 100 laps. Nathan and TC were still running around towards the finish line of their triple ironman. Ever present on the lap was Conor O’Keefe, who was the only finisher in the 200 mile ultra. He ran for almost 60 hours. Now that is some perseverance.
I tried to coordinate my laps with Ben, pausing to see him come in each bike lap and helping as best I could. Then when he started running, I kept him company for a couple of laps, happy to be able to support him a little. This also provided a bit of variety and psychological stimulus.
I took another break to watch Ben finish, and celebrate his race. By that point, I had clocked a total of 44 laps, so made the decision to reach for 50. The late start on Friday helped me now, as some of the other runners timed out of their 48 hours. I was still comfortably holding fifteen minutes per lap, which suggests I approached this well from the start, rather than going off too fast.
The final lap made me surprisingly euphoric. After so many times around the small circuit, runners complete their last lap in reverse. This allows you to celebrate with the other competitors. It’s a lovely way to finish off, sharing high fives and receiving congratulations from the people that you’ve come to know over the course of the weekend. The down side, of course, is that after 49 laps of learning every bump and root in the path, you are suddenly running in the wrong direction on what feels like uncharted territory.
I made it around unscathed and celebrated with Ben, Suzy and Malachi. 50 laps – 55 miles – 88km over three days, to add to the 22.8km of swimming. My ankle was slightly stiff but had held up fine. My shoulders and hip flexors were tight but still functioning well. If I’ve learned anything this week, it’s that the secret to endurance is to slow it the hell down right from the start. In three days, the only times my heart rate went up were during the last half lap of the swim when I indulged in a sprint finish, and at Sunday lunch when I thought they’d run out of sticky toffee pudding.
I spoke earlier about limiting beliefs. I remember the first time I ran a marathon, it’d been so traumatic that I decided that was too far for me, and it took my thirteen years before I tried it again. I am not particularly fitter now than I was back then (and I am considerably older), but my mindset has completely changed. I don’t know what my limits are any more. I suppose there is a physical limitation on us all, but it’s a lot more interesting to explore the far reaches of your capabilities than to decide in advance where they lie.
Enduroman Festival of Ultra Events http://legendendurance-events.co.uk/
Koen van Meeuwen’s Blog on the 3-2-1 Swim. http://koenvanmeeuwen.nl/enduroman-swim-3-2-1/