I’m torn writing this as if word gets out how absolutely bloody awesome this race is it’ll prove impossible to get an entry. So here goes… at least I’ve done it once.
Short report: 11:24:16 37th male pair.
The race experience starts when all those racing collect by on the quay in Stockholm to get on the ferry to the race start. This three hour journey gives everyone a chance to catch up with friends, chat with other racers and look at the beautiful scenery giving an idea of the sort of terrain we’ll be racing over the following day. I was very glad I thought to pack a few layers and a wooly had as it got a little chilly on deck.
Arriving in Sandhamn there was a super efficient registration process before we went and sorted out kit in really nice hotel room. Just prior to the briefing we saw something I wish I’d missed; two guys returning from a quick swim, they looked absolutely frozen. My feeling was it was better to leave it till tomorrow to find out as I couldn’t race in any more insulation than I’d got planned. In fact, I read their race report on Tri247 and from the sounds of it their practise swim resulted in them wearing too little.
The briefing was good fun largely because it was far closer to how I’d run such a briefing. Clearly assumed you’d read the rules etc… so it was more about welcoming us, highlighting the important bits and answering questions. A couple of comments made us smile:
– Pointing at the early islands and saying “at this point you will be totally freaking out” – how wrong we were when we thought this was reference to how cold we would be by that point
– by the end of the race our “wetsuits will be not so fresh” -proved to be very true.
After this was a fantastic pre race meal. Superb quality food and nice to see a pasta bolognese dish which must have had a mince to pasta ratio of at least 3:1. The set up was lovely with tables for two allowing teams to eat alone if they wanted with larger tables for those wanting to be more social. I decided to sit on a table for six and see who chose us to sit with. Ended up enjoying a nice chatty meal with two other brit pairs. The setting was so nice we couldn’t resist sitting at the bar and having a couple of beers and taking it all in. It felt Andy and I were on the same page with our approach to this. We both have a pretty decent background in endurance stuff and felt sure we could keep going but we wanted to maximise the enjoyment of the whole experience which meant any marginal gains from abstaining from a few beers were ignored.
I felt no nerves about this race. My biggest concern was the cold but that would just be what it would be. I still didn’t sleep well just from the sheer excitement of the race ahead. 4am and we were up for breakfast. Full buffet laid on which allowed me eggs and bacon which is my perfect pre race meal. All set.
The race coverage we’d seen suggested a fairly conservative pace for the first 1.2km which was neutralised behind a quad bike. It appeared to be along a track only two people wide. As a strong swimming pair we agreed to get towards the front at the start so we weren’t last in to the water. The start is anytime from 5:40 to 6:15am so you need to be ready. The variability is because the first swim is across a shipping lane so on the morning they find out when they should start to give an appropriate window to get us all across.
We got away at 5:54am with the first 50m being an obstacle course avoiding the art installation of three massive anchors offset right in our path. Had this been the US this would have been a major hazard, with huge insurance required but we’re in Sweden where they’re willing to trust to some common sense on our part – it just provided a welcome little amusement to the start of the big day.
The pace was bonkers. I wasn’t feeling my legs and certainly didn’t want to run at that pace. Andy quickly said this pace is insane and said we should ease off. Must have dropped from 20th to 80th in minutes. Then I had a mechanical! Sods law struck me down. I was using paddles from when I swam as a teenager. Not once have I ever had the finger strap come lose but running along it came out and was a swine to rethread whilst running with cold hands. We stopped and pretty much ended up dead last as we hit the water.
I jumped in and declared to Andy “it’s warmer than Lyme Regis”. I’m guessing those around must have been wondering how far north Lyme Regis was if it was colder than this as it was very cold but it didn’t feel it to me as I’d completely convinced myself it would be painfully cold. It wasn’t. Halfway across this first swim (the longest at 1,650m) I started to realise it wasn’t strictly warmer than Lyme Regis as I was getting a pretty monster ice cream headache. It was such a pleasure with the sun rising. I kept looking over my shoulder to check Andy was still there but with it being a east to west swim I could hardly make him out due to the rising sun so I periodically swam backstroke to check. We passed so many people and this proved to be the norm for all the swims – we were never passed during a swim.
Getting out at the far end was the most bizarre experience. Each time I went to place a foot down it seemed that not only was the rock a few inches from where I sensed it to be but also gravity seemed to be working at about 45 degrees off the angle I thought it should. I seem to remember shouting to Andy “you’ll need to slow down as I seem to have lost my balance”. Next thing I know I’ve fallen and done a rolly polly back in to the sea. I’m laid there in an ice cold bath having a giggling fit “Andy I’ve completely lost my balance”.
We got running and had a right old laugh with the banter about how I’d left my balance in the hotel room and such like. Luckily Andy figured out that it was due to my neoprene cap covering my ears and adjusting it solved the problem. The first few islands are pretty rough going and I was desperate not to go twisting an ankle and so was moving conservatively and we got passed by quite a few. We now understood the “freaking out” comment at the briefing as this was insane going. If it was all like this there was no way we could cover the course in the time.
The time really flew by. One of us would remark with surprise as each hour passed. With so many swims and runs early on together with the amount of shit Andy and I seem able to talk (just ask Mel about the final leg of Welsh 3000s this year) the time flew. In the first few hours I really wasn’t feeling good running but after about 3hrs I finally felt I’d found my running legs so that when we hit Nando we started to run at a decent pace. So good that for the first time we actually passed someone whilst running. The second longest and most open swim was now looming large, the quickly becoming infamous “pig swim’. Marshalls started commenting how close it was getting and I think Andy was a little concerned about it. Personally I was looking forward to it. I was really enjoying the swims as recovery from the runs, so 30 minutes of swimming was something to savour. Prior to this there was a shorter swim where a marshall was telling everyone where to aim as so many people were heading off course. We passed so many people as everyone seemed to be ignoring her and going well right. We held a good course and could see we must have passed half a dozen pairs. It was a huge moral booster.
We got to the pig swim. It was cold and though the strobe light was easy to see from the land once in the water it took a lot of spotting. Andy was tiring on the swims resulting in a noticeable drop off in pace after a couple of hundred metres. This did have the advantage of allowing me time to stop and look up to be sure we’re on course without reducing his pace. This swim we dropped to over 2 mins per 100m. It’s interesting to note it still made us noticeably faster than anyone around us. I stopped to check on Andy. He was getting cramp. Little we could do. I said we’re nearly there, it was just to be encouraging but I don’t think he bought it. Looking back it was clear we were at best halfway. I just wanted it to be over. I started feeling myself getting frustrated with Andy. Part of the “shit” we’d shot during the race and in training was all about “living in the moment” and observing your feelings. I found myself doing this and realised how stupid it was to feel frustrated, he was doing his best and we’d known from the outset that my swimming was a lot stronger. He was also suffering more with the cold probably because the arms on his wetsuit were looser and cold water was flushing in. I reminded my self he was going as fast as he could, we’re a team and I need to keep him on my feet for the team to move fastest. Now the cramp idea was in my head and I found myself periodically feeling I was getting cramp. It was almost like my focus on keeping my calves relaxed was making me feel like I was cramping.
The swim really drained us. We were just above walking pace for a while after, I felt a little ill and suddenly the remaining swims were looking more daunting. We suffered for a while. I’m guessing it was the cold but it also hit me just how draining these swims are for the weaker swimmers in the field. I’d written all the distances on my paddles and it was round about now we were moving to the second paddle and there was a 970m swim still to come. It certainly became a talking point.
The 970m swim I kept very concentrated on keeping Andy close and it felt like it was over in no time even though we had slowed further. For Andy now the worst was over the best to come. The complete opposite for me. We had the big island, the 20k run, the point where Andy’s ultra running background would come to the fore, the point where my lack of run training would find me out.
4k into the 20k section and we were finally warm enough to pull down wetsuits. This gave access to the map and some idea of progress. It wasn’t so bad though I was reduced to an Ironman shuffle. It felt that Andy could have gone faster but he was now looking after me. We both talk a lot so a sure fire sign that we’re suffering is silence. We were both silent, it was tough. Every so often you try to start a conversation to keep morale up. At one point all I could think of saying was “The final 3.3k is going to hurt like an absolute t**t” (sorry mum if you figure out the swear word) – this made us laugh at various points along the rest of the race. The acceptance of how much it would hurt was a positive thing, it helped our mood to make a joke of it. I now found myself focussing on technique points which Helen has taught me, even used my paddles to help my counter rotation. I kept bringing Matthews words to mind “Embrace the cold and the pain – they are only transitory” – this guy knows how to push through suffering.
We hit the road and it started to hurt. At the aid station just over half way neither of us seemed in a rush to leave. We probably didn’t stay more than a few minutes though as we both knew there’s only one way to get finished, keep moving and the quicker you move the sooner it’ll be over. The road continued and I hit my absolute lowest ebb. It now seemed seriously daunting. Doubts about being able to finish flooded my mind. Conversation was negligible.
The psychology of this race is quite interesting. The water seemed relatively warm to me because I’d convinced myself it would be colder. Due to the run training I’d done I was convinced that the section on road would be where I fell apart and I did. Also as a pair it boosts you if your partner is suffering probably because not only are you stronger at that moment but also you’re less concerned about how you feel more about supporting your partner. At this point Andy was definitely the strongest and we discussed how the fact I was suffering so much was helping his strength. Acknowledging this and discussing how bizarre it was helped. I also found myself deciding it would help my mood if I took everything spectators and marshals said absolutely literally and as truth. This meant when one lady shouted “you’re awesome” I couldn’t help but respond with something like “wow! thanks, I really appreciate you noticing, I’m going to tell all my friends”. I probably made no sense whatsoever but in my mind I was the funniest guy alive and that thought helped.
An idea came across my mind. I’m not sure why, partly because I had to change something, partly because I need the balance between us to change. Andy had pointed out how over the years he’d got used to running at this sort of pace and could do it for hours. It made me realise that this plodding was killing me. This pace meant walking wasn’t even a release. I remembered Ironman Florida and how a ran walked but when I ran I was running properly. I thought this might help but wasn’t willing to suggest it without trying whether it worked right now for fear that Andy would take it up and I’d suffer more.
We’d managed to always run downhill so as we approached the next one I really let my legs go and continued running at a decent pace along the long straight until the next rise. As I pulled away Andy was heard to say “whats this all about”. He caught up and I explained and thus “The Florida Manoeuvre” was created. Andy continued his preferred “hunters trot”, I would run fast till I was about 50m ahead then walk till he got 50m ahead and repeat. At this point whatever it takes to get through it. Our overall speed increased and we got through the tarmac section and before we knew it were on to the rougher terrain that characterised the start and end of each each island. Wetsuits back on and ready for the final push across the small islands that we’d been told in the briefing were some of the toughest terrain.
By now the biggest swim remaining was 350m and Andy seemed to be dreading it a little. We commented how a long swim at this stage would be almost overwhelming. We got it done and now the 180m swim seems daunting. The last aid station, loads of vegetable soup and Andy doing a full squat – for relief he said, showing off to the ladies is what I thought, “we’ll have none of that” is what I said. The terrain was tough going, we were slow taking 5:28 to cover 210m on the final island.
Now the final 3.3k which were going “to hurt like an absolute tw*t” – my self psychology worked. It was no where near that bad. In fact I felt pretty good. We were both suffering with aching feet but Andy, not being as used to me running in Vibram Fivefingers, was suffering more. Just like before this meant I felt extra strong. We ran well, chatted, walked a bit, no one in sight. Fully enjoying the final section. Unusually for a race I found that for the vast majority of it was I was fully aware how much fun I was having right in the moment.
Crossing the line was truly awesome. Being ever so british I went to shake the race directors hand who greeted us at the finish. He gave me a “clearly that isn’t going to be enough” look and embraced me in a monster hug.
The whole experience continued from there. The finish line was a lovely relaxed celebration – food, massage, beer all available. It’s location up a hill had seemed cruel when you saw it with about 400m to go in the race but now it was great as you could see people coming in. Everyone stayed in this great hotel which put on a great buffet dinner (including sushi!) which seemed to be running all night. Many partied late but we managed to make 3 beers last us five hours. The next morning following a big breakfast buffet everyone was able to catch up and exchange war stories on the ferry home.
I want to do it again !
I plan to do a follow up post on thoughts on kit, training etc… it may be useful if you’re considering doing it and certainly will be of use to me if I manage to get in again next year.
I must thank Primal Lifestyle and BlueSeventy for sponsoring us. Wetsuits are certainly put through their paces in this race and our wetsuits passed the test. My Helix was a pleasure to swim in and, apart from the occasionally spell of overheating, was unaware of it whilst running. Based on the the level of screaming in the shower the rubbing was minimal given we’d worn them for 12 hours. We both raced in Vibram Fivefinger Spyridons. They proved great for swimming in and excellent grip on the varied terrain. The glove like fit meant zero blisters for either of us despite the fact you’re running most of the time with wet feet.