I don’t think there are enough superlatives to accuracy capture the experience of the inaugural Breca Bay of Islands swimrun. The label stated 25km of running and 8.4km of swimming, island hopping the iconic Bay of Islands, with adjectives like pristine, challenging, technical, and beauty. Oh boy did it have all that.
Having ditched the kids for the second weekend in a row, George and I arrived in Paihia on Saturday afternoon. Checking into our hotel we discovered that the Amphibious Angels team of Liz and Hayley would be our neighbours. I wiped the sweat from my brow after confirming my team mate Chris was also in town, we were good to go.
Registration at Waitangi was just like any other with us presenting our required gear – a wetsuit, whistle, cup, and clean shoes. It was odd not having all the usual required warm gear and jackets. But we did get our supplied required gear of a swim cap and race bib/crop top for me. Then it was safety briefing time; (alarm siren), quick course overview, (alarm siren), if you cut yourself on the rocks = sharks (alarm siren), worryingly they generally (alarm siren) have a 10-20% DNF/cut off (security show up and tell us the alarm has been going off) rate, and some questions from the floor.
Being a bit of a gear freak I love that in swimrun almost anything goes, use as much or a little as you like, you just have to carry it the whole way. Unless you’re from one particular team that would manage to lose almost everything along the way. But being a first time swimrunner and only having one proper training under my belt, I struggled with what I’d need or want. I opted to go minimal as I could and rely on the aid stations more than I normally do.
So, it would be:
- Zone3 Evolution Wetsuit.
- Icebug Oribi shoes, with CEP socks.
- Swimrunners pull buoy and custom XXL belt (awesome customer service to make me a larger belt).
- Salomon soft flask, tucked into my wetsuit for the swims.
- Hand paddles of some brand.
- Finz goggles.
- Vfuel gels, Sour Patch kids.
- Oh and almost a can of TriGlide anti-chafe spray before we left.
I left my lovely bluey green Buff visor at home though.
Something that was out of everyone’s hands was the weather, and after a week of wild winds (which had removed some of our roof tiles), I don’t think people were holding out much hope for a good day. But someone must have had a direct line to the weather gods because Sunday dawned calm, cool, and frankly stunning – it was going to be a good day. Lining up on the beach at 7 am on Waitangi Treaty Grounds everyone was a mix of black, orange, red, white, and nerves. There were pull buoys, hand paddles, tow floats of all shapes and sizes, people had foam tied to their shoes and stuffed into their socks, and then there were the infamous Harper Fins straight from the (twisted?) mind of James Harper.
Once we were let loose it was a quick 500m dash across the Copthorne’s front yard. The night before we’d been asked to keep the noise down through here, but the wafting smell of the breakfast buffet almost called for testing of our whistles in retaliation. Still in a pretty tight bunch it was the first swim, 400m across the mouth of the Waitangi inlet. Anyone that has ever done a triathlon or swim race will tell you there is a lot of pushing and shoving in the water at the start. Well, now add in shoes and plastic blades on people’s hands and you’ve got a really bad time. This was something I hadn’t experienced before, and thus this swim sucked. It dragged on and on, and I lost Chris somewhere in the melee. I wondered how the hell I was going to manage the rest of the day.
The next 2km run sucked too, somewhat shaken by the swim and running in the soft sand I couldn’t get a groove going. But having Chris there helped me keep moving, and George and Chris’s fiancé, Asia, yelling from the side of the road lifted my spirit. But what really put the smile back on my dial and fire in my belly was the large Maori fella amongst the locals lining the beach cheering. When he spotted me, he pointed and yelled out “triple digits represent!!” followed by “yeah boy” and more cheering. I think it would be safe to assume I was the only one competing with a triple digit weight. For nothing else this was cause enough to push on.
Back into the water for a quick hop over two islands, Motuarahi and Toretore, and to the Te Wahapu Peninsula. In the swim between the two, we and most others took a wee detour turning 700m into 1.2km. Once on Toretore island Chris and I discovered that we were pretty quick on the technical rocks, so we managed to overtake a number of teams here. My Icebugs performed perfectly here, just buckets of grip and drained so well. A 10m ‘swim’ in knee deep water and we were on people’s front yards and meeting the (Breca?) Monster for the first time at the next entry point. It was here James and his team mate Tracy caught us up, with Tracy bemoaning his constant wardrobe changes as he would stop to fit the Harper Fins. Respite was at hand however, as the Velcro and mess that James had employed to attach the fins to his shoes would fail in this swim, condemning one to the briny deep.
Our first aid station and cut off point lay within the Omata Estate Vineyard, which was at the top of a rather abrupt climb. This also was the start of the longest run of the day at 11.7km to Russell township. Cabbing down (just some sweet swimrun lingo there, meaning to drop down the top half of our wetsuits) we took off up the stairs. At the top we found a swim cap and goggles. Chris scooped them up and we hypothesized (rightly we’d learn later) that they were most likely James or Tracy’s. Happily, we made the cut off with over 30min to spare, so refueled we started our run.
This leg had some amazing trails and boardwalks, but for me, I was just trying to keep up with young Mr. Gazelle up front. To add to the cap and goggles Chris was already carrying, he found a hand paddle also dropped on the road. Did James or Tracy have paddles too? With our legs burning hot from the wetsuits (we’d underestimated the effect they would have) the Angels caught us. We’d thought they were in front of us, as in the detour swim they were on the right/direct line but turns out Liz doubted herself and had turned onto the more detoury detour line, putting them behind us.
The run took it out of me and at times I was reduced to a walk, and normally that’s where I might have stayed, walking. But the team aspect came into play and Chris would let me walk for a bit, at pace, but then would he’d quietly start to jog again and I’d be forced to pick it up again. This got us into Russell to be greeted and cheered on by bemused people having brunch at the cafes along The Strand. George had also jumped the ferry over to meet us as we ran in and provided a welcome sight. Almost as much as the jugs of water and potatoes dipped in sea salt – just needed butter, and sour cream, and bacon.
Another hill and we were at Long Beach prepping for the next swim. Chris handed his collected goodies to one of the marshals, and the paddle immediately found its owner again with a team just about to jump in. It was just a quick 3.1km dash over to Motuarohia aka Roberton Island. The cold water was bliss after the run and the sea was calm and glassy; perfect. Except suddenly I was stuck at 1182m with time ticking on, I watched in horror as our pace tanked – Crap what’s happened, we’re going to be cut at the next check point! I yelled to Chris asking how far we’d travelled, “2.5km nearly there” was the reply, and I it dawned that Feny was messing with me. Finally exiting the water after 1hr 42min and closer to 4km we were greeted by some very cold teams.
The climb out of Cooks Cove made sure we warmed back up and were ready for my favorite part of Motuarohia Is, the twin lagoons. We exited the island from one of these lagoons and started the second longest swim, 1.8km, with the first bit of swell and chop we’d seen. Here our lack of early pace paid off and the headwind the front runners had endured was now our tailwind. For the first few hundred meters I was accompanied by a couple of decent Kingi cruising along below me. However, my habit of turning 90deg abruptly when swimming meant I had to stop watching them and focus on the exit point on Moturua Island.
Moturua Island was rough for me, Feny was playing silly buggers again, and the intestinal issues from The Gazuntite had returned and were making running a bit painful. It was a shame as there were some awesome flowing trails to bomb down too. Chris was straining at the imaginary 10m leash to put his foot down. When he did let himself go to stride out the last few meters to put at most 15m on me, he was met with the shrill angry call of “10 meters, or you’ll be yellow carded” from one of the marshals at the next check point.
Before the next swim was a bit more rock hopping, this allowed us to again catch a couple of teams, including an
English Scottish (sorry for that one guys) pair of one of which had suffered a pretty bad rolled ankle back at Long Beach, and we thought were done for (Update: it was an “avulsion fracture of the lateral malleolus” ie: broken ankle). Somehow, they had recovered and passed us during a swim, just proving how people’s different strengths could play into the race. The short swim to the private island of Motukiekie Island was spectacular with the clear water making the bottom look so close we could’ve just walked amongst the numerous fish.
Motukiekie Island was all rock hopping and we loved it! Cutting past teams we came upon the Angels, who weren’t loving it as much. Scooting past them, we tried to put as much distance on them as we could while readying ourselves for the final 1.3k swim to Urupukapuka Island and the finish line. All the while I was trying suppress some rather inconvenient in a wetsuit urges.
Towards the end of a race things sometimes feel a bit glum as fatigue sets in, and anything to lighten the moment is always well received. Sure, enough this happened, three times – well one is funnier after the fact.
So here we go funny thing number 1 (feat number 2):
Throughout the day the water safety team had done a stellar job keeping other boats away from us. But now towards the end of the day and with a thinned-out field, a dolphin watching boat was wanting to cut through the course. The captain must have seen Chris and I, so like he would a pod of dolphins, he approached us slowly turning the boat for all on board to see the least graceful of mammals flopping along in the water. I would have looked a treat with my left arm having given up and merely flapping away, as Chris would later put it (i.e. funny thing number 2 – and the post-race funny one). After letting us past, they cut about 10m behind me, with happy tourists snapping away, so I turned and waved then carried on my merry way chasing Chris who was annoyingly floating on his back waiting for me.
Number 3 was at the beach aid station. While refuelling and cabbing down for the final mountainous 4.5km run to the finish with a couple of other teams, our old mates the
Poms Scot’s came ashore. The lady of the team announced that she’d developed a lisp, while we laughed, we also realized we’d all also developed lisps. Hours of swimming in and swallowing salt water had swollen our tongues and blown out any desire for salt for a few days. I also struggled to get my wet crop top back into place, resulting in a few nip slips and me looking like Andre the Giant. This could count for funny I guess, so make it 4 funny moments.
Having decided to forgo a pit stop and chance it to the line, we set about trying to maintain our lead on the girls. This was going to be tough with the hilly terrain, my shot body, and Hayley’s killer spirit compelling her to hunt us down. At the top of one peak, we caught a glimpse of them behind us, Liz’s ‘body recovery’ pink wetsuit giving them away. With a smidgen under 1km left they got us, though Hayley’s comments almost earned herself a shove into the bush; young kids these days.
With a last bust of energy Chris and I powered into the finish chute at Otehei Bay, 9 hours and 7 minutes after leaving Waitangi. High fives and hugs from mates, George, and Asia ensued. I couldn’t help but steal a glance out the bay and back across the water to where we started – surely the ferry is easier way to get to the island? But cold started to set in and a cup of warm soup and a hot shower beckoned before a jug of beer and BBQ dinner.
So, what is my take on this swimrun gig? Freckling awesome and tough to boot. I would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a challenge and I’ll be back for sure. While the swimming might seem daunting to most, so does running 21, 42, 50, or 100km+, it all comes down to putting in the training. Plus, you’re not alone out there as this is a team sport, and I can’t thank Chris enough for running at quarter pace and putting up with me for the day. Only sucky thing? I couldn’t carry a camera and there were some awesome views, so you’ll just have to do it yourself.
Now come on New Zealand event companies, put on some swimrun events. Can’t have a company from England taking all the pie. (Rumour is there might even be a shorter option next year too, for those after a taste).
What my Garmin said I did:
This is closer to what we did: