Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s that time of the year again. Where a group of weirdos don the oddest mix of gear and head out on a trip across the Bay of Islands. It’s Breca baby!
Having had such an amazing time last year, there was no way I was going to miss out on this year’s “extended” version of the Breca Bay of Islands Swimrun. So, a quick recap of what swimrunning is all about: In teams of two, you alternate between running and swimming along the course. The famous line is: you run in your wetsuit and swim in your shoes. With my team mate from last year, Chris, hoping to team up with his brother, I was on the hunt for a new partner. After a few false starts, I managed to find someone naïve enough to team up with me; one of the OG trail running badasses and just general badass Vicki Woolley.
With a couple of training runs under our belt, we felt that we had mastered the basics and would at least make the first cut off. So, it was off to Waitangi for the race with a fine day predicted. This year George and I decided we’d bring the girls along, having ditched them at my parents twice already in previous three weeks. Freed of the babysitting duties, my parents decided they might as well come along too. Adding in Vicki’s friend, Lucy, there was quite a support crew in tow (with a few surprises to come).
Race day started real nice and early, not RoF early, but still too damn early. This year we were welcomed onto the start line on the Waitangi Treaty grounds with an amazing pōwhiri, that perfectly set the tone for the day with the sun starting to rise behind them. No wind, clear skies, oh it was going to be a good day.
And with that we were off. After a quick run we were jumping off the Waitangi wharf into our first swim. Following the rule of never trying something new on race day, we’d decided the day before to try a tow rope (more a big strip of elastic than a rope) on the swims during the race. After experiencing the chaos of the first swim last year, we opted not to use it for this swim. And the inevitable happened with both Vicki and I getting separated and following the wrong people. Not the best start, landing us at the back but the day was just starting so no biggie as there was a long way to go.
Hitting the run, we managed to close the gap a bit, and hit the next swim only seconds behind the next team. This time we clipped the tow rope on, and I set out in the lead with Vicki tucked in behind me in my wake/slipstream. I was relieved to find that, aside for the occasional tap on my shoe, I didn’t even notice her there in terms of my effort. I was even more relieved that it made life easier for her too. We were using a “guidance” rope, so I wasn’t actually pulling her (well so she says anyway), rather it kept her in the ‘sweet’ spot behind me (though many would argue that being behind me is far from sweet).
Not wanting to boast too much, but I nailed the navigation in this section, and pretty much the rest of the day too. Caught out last year by the current, we ended up swimming a big arc, so this year we took off on a heading all to ourselves, drifting in and landing right on target. Then it was time to make some real gains on the rocks. We hopped, skipped and jumped our way around the island passing a good number of teams, including Liz and Kelley. One more swim was the big climb and run to Russell. Trying to save some time, I cabbed down my wetsuit on the move, losing my drink bottle in the process. Thankfully the good people of team 41 collected it and we were able to be reunited at the first aid station.
The big 11km run is the part I dread the most, as it is my weakest part and the section where the most people pass us. Vicki took the lead here pushing me on, never waning in her positively and encouragement. To help with encouragement, our support crew had taken the car ferry after seeing us off from the ‘mainland’ (yes, Russell is a peninsula, but it feels like an island), and they seemed to now be waiting around every corner. In the end we made pretty good time to the second aid station in Russell and restocked our wetsuit pockets.
After running a bit low on last year on energy, I was making sure I kept up on the calories this time by bringing along my custom Infinit mix. This meant looking like a shady drug dealer with little ziplock bags of white powder pinned to the inside of my wetsuit. I’d learnt to pin things in after stuff floated/fell out last year. Once again, the mix worked its magic covering off 90% of my fuel for the day, topped up with a few oranges and a ginger ale Gu. While I didn’t partake in the potatoes this year, Vicki polished off a good number of the salt covered badboys.
After the big run there is the big swim; a lovely little 3.5 km dip from Russell to the first of the outer islands and the start of the real island hopping. Going from hot running legs to cold floating legs kicked off some enjoyable cramping. I was prepared with my new secret weapon CrampFix, but I wasn’t quite prepared for its assault on my senses. That stuff will put hair on the hairs on your chest, but it cleared the cramp quick smart.
After skipping over Motuarohia Island trying to warm up and swimming to Moturua Island, we hit the first change of this year’s course. I guess the team from Breca felt we needed more vert in our life, so we ran a different trail that took in all the delightful hills on offer. While I struggled along dragging my arse up the hills, Vicki was still chatting away, sometimes to me and sometimes to the birds in the trees. It was while chatting to the lovely volunteers at the aid station on the back side of the island that we first let the cat out of the bag regarding our interesting path to the start line.
If you kick it in the trail running circles, you might know about Vicki and if not then here is a little bio; Vicki has probably run some of the craziest trails in the country, and has had some crazy epic adventures that leave you with your mouth hanging open. But 11 months ago, while riding to work, she was hit by a car and sent flying head first into the road. This resulted in her fracturing her C6 and C7 vertebras, and by all account, mere millimetres and seconds from death. But like I said, she is a total badass and despite the pain, the nerve damage, and damage to her brain, she has worked her way back to walking, and then running, and then to this craziness.
Then in a classic case of FOMO, I couldn’t let Vicki hog all the medical issues. So, as you might remember, 7 weeks before the event I had my gangrenous appendix removed. So along with no running for 4 weeks after the op, there was no swimming allowed too. Boy did we made for a winning team, and certainly befitting of the team name: Can’t die, won’t die. Can’t die, because Vicki is the woman that can’t be killed, and won’t die, because I do this “stuff” so I won’t die before my time.
We’d been looking forward to the next few legs, as these were the rocky sections where we knew we would be able to make up some ground. But alas there was no ground to make due to it being high tide. This meant that the runs had transformed into swims, lots of swims. Even nesting dotterels conspired to remove a run leg. Near the end of our new 2.4km swim Vicki mentioned that she thought our escort boats were talking about cutting us, despite being an hour under cut off. I looked up and saw what I thought was the aid station being packed down. I alternated between swimming like a mad man and despair that our day was done. Thankfully it was all in our heads and we put the legs to work climbing the surprisingly steep Waewaetorea Island before the last swim of the day, a 950m long 600m swim.
Now onto Urupukapuka Island, all we had left was a 4.8km run to the finish line with the couple sweeping the course chasing us. By this point I was pretty much tapped out, the legs were not giving me much on the hills. But with Vicki in front of me setting the pace and the tailenders behind, somehow they willed me onwards even pushing the pace up. By this point we were getting close to the last ferry leaving at 6:30, but we could hear cheers as teams ahead of us finished.
I don’t think anyone would class Vicki as an imposing figure by any stretch of the imagination. But when, with a kilometre to go, a marshal suggested that they might short course us, I thought there was about to be a homicide on Urupukapuka. But we hadn’t come this far to not finish, so we legged it before a call could be made, it was only 1000m to go after all. But the Breca VAT (15% extra) kicked in again and meant we still had a bit extra to go in the quickly fading light, and a wee surprise I’d arranged at the finish.
Running into the finish chute, we were greeted by cheers from the Breca bumble bees and our waiting family and friends. Amongst them was the Total Sport crew, with whom I’d conspired with to make the trek up to from Wild Kiwi the day before to surprise Vicki. If you watch the video from the finish, you can see the point at which Vicki clicks who has her medal for her. For my daughters, it was the first big race that they have seen me finish, so it was awesome to see they reactions.
Sure, it had taken us about an hour longer than expected, we were last (by just 4min), and we missed the 6:30 ferry (thanks Ben for rustling up an extra one). But man, oh man did those course changes add some extra challenges to an already epic event. It had been another amazing day, with the most amazing volunteers (many who had done the sprint event the day before), and supporters, both the ones we knew and the randoms around the course.
While I’d like to give a huge thanks to the team from Breca, the volunteers, supporters, other teams, and my family for making the day so great, I simply couldn’t have done it without my team mate Vicki. Her positive attitude was relentless, awe-inspiring, and infectious, even when half frozen from a swim she was smiling. Her encouragement was non-stop as was the banter, it certainly didn’t feel like 11hrs. I think this, the teammate, is what takes swimrun to the next level, and I certainly had a next level teammate. I think it is safe to say we’re both hooked on swimrun now.
I couldn’t help but smile and get a little misty eyed as Vicki raced up the last little hill before the finish, whooping, hollering, and jumping for joy. She was back. Sorry Steve, she’s not done down here, and we’re not done with her down here, you’re just going to have to wait. You showed her the hills, now there are the coastlines to explore.