It was in Hawaii in October 2015 when I first met Alan Scott, a British Ironman athlete and one half of a team I now know as The Clapham Bruderwunderz. Alan introduced me to ‘swim run’, and he told me about some European swim run races he had competed in, but what he didn’t mention is that he was pretty damn awesome at them and his team had won several of them. The Clapham Bruderwunderz are legends in Breca throughout Europe.
The idea to swim run and navigate your way around the course carrying all of your equipment was intriguing, you wear your shoes in the swim! Hmmm, how does that work? Plus it’s a two person team event, where you stay together throughout the race.
Having heard all about it from Alan, I knew when I noticed a Facebook post from a triathlon colleague about ‘Breca Wanaka’ - that swim run was coming to NZ.
It was the following morning at the Aquatic Centre speaking with my training buddy Merv Hunger, that I told him about this awesome new event, and that I was considering it. Merv went to work, hit the google search, and within an hour we had entered this event. If nothing else, a fun weekend in Wanaka to look forward to!
So where did this crazy sport originate – here’s what Wikipedia says:
In 2002 Anders Malm, the owner of Utö Värdshus (the finish line hotel of ÖtillÖ), his friend Janne Lindberg and some of his staff (the Andersson brothers) had a late night in the bar. They challenged each other – “Last team of two to Sandhamn pays for hotel, dinner and drinks”. Two teams of two started the next morning with the only rule being that they had to pass the three different restaurants on the islands between the start and the finish. The last team at the restaurant had to drink and pay what the team ahead of them had ordered for them. It took them more than 24 hours and they were too tired to party on arrival. They tried again the year after with the same result.
I had no idea how to prepare for this kind other than to swim train and run train, and swim-run at the same time.
I did some research and discovered there were specific swim run wetsuits, and began the search to find suitable equipment and the best method for this race. Once the wetsuits were identified, ordered, and in our possession it was time to switch to some more specific training.
Merv and I arranged some swim run specific training weekends, twice in Lake Taupo, and a further weekend in Rotorua at the Blue Lake. A chance to field test our equipment, test our strategy for drafting the swims, and to get some endurance in the bank.
Breca Wanaka was made up of 19 stages, 10 run stages, a total of 42km, and 9 swim stages, a total of 8km. Total race distance of 50 km, and a guesstimate of 6 – 7 hours race time.
I have never swum 8 kilometres in a day, but was looking for to the challenge!
During one training weekend in Taupo, we received a lot of funny looks from locals, triathletes, and tourists, as we ran along the waterfront in our orange and black wetsuits wearing swim caps and goggles on our forehead with swim paddles on our hands and a swim pull buoy elastically attached to our hip.
The swim accessories were designed to assist with flotation to counter against the drag of swimming with shoes. I distinctly recall swimming across one of the bays, emerging from the water and running off along the lakefront whilst tourists looked at us in disbelief thinking we were some kind of human amphibian!
And so to Wanaka for the race, we flew to Queenstown on Thursday morning, picked up a rental car and slowly made our way to Wanaka. The compulsory stop at the Cardrona hotel for a couple of beers in the beer garden was the perfect way to kick off the weekend.
On Friday before the race we had a 25 minute swim in the lake to gain some appreciation of the temperature, and to gauge the effect on the body from the cold water. It's fair to say it was freezing.
However we were confident that running the first leg before the first swim would've warmed our body up sufficiently to cope much better.
We also went to the start location for the race and jogged the first run leg of just over 2.5 km, the scenery during that first leg was spectacular and had me excited for the race ahead. If nothing else we were in 100% pure New Zealand, and the spectacular scenery was going to be a highlight of the day.
Race morning we collected our timing chip - GPS tracking device from race HQ, then made our own way to the race start.
The race itself was an adventure, it was something completely new and exciting and a whole lot of fun.
Merv and I are similarly matched in both swimming and running, and felt that we could be competitive depending on the limitations of my ongoing injury issues and whether my body would survive beyond three hours which had been the limit of our training sessions due to injury. My greatest concern was holding Merv back.
As we entered the water after stage one I could see that we were sitting just inside the top 10. We were happy to be in this position and knew that later in the race some teams who had started too quick would tire, and toward the latter part of the race there was a 14 km run segment where Merv and I had planned as a stage where we could make a move.
We adapted our swim run strategy as we went, with Merv choosing to take his shoes off and stuff them inside his wetsuit for the swims. It became clear that this enhanced his swim speed, and we agreed this would be our plan for the longer 2.5 km swim across the neck of the lake.
That swim segment was a game changer for us, and as it turned out a game changer for many. The water temperature of approximately 15° became a significant factor although at the time I didn't recognise it. The swim across the neck of the lake in deep and dark water, in the middle of mountainous terrain was both spectacular and a little intimidating. No swim buoys or beaches etc, surrounded by amazing hills, and a headland across the other side to aim for… it’s us in the middle of a very large lake!
By the time we completed that swim, which seemed to take a lifetime to complete, we were extremely cold and dysfunctional. I couldn't stand up and every time I tried I would fall over, it was bizarre. At the same time Mervs teeth were chattering from the cold, I thought that was bizarre until I realised that mine were too!
It was only later that I realised the bodies energy systems were totally absorbed with trying to stay warm and that the blood has rushed to our core hence being unable to stand up!
We composed ourselves, navigated the difficult first 2km of the next run, then still managed to run the 14km section very well, and caught a few teams, and moved further ahead of others. Unfortunately our lack of nutrition awareness was about to bite us very hard! Despite having some nutrition at each of the aid stations, we had severely underestimated what would be required.
Following the long run, there was a beautiful 1.3 km swim across Glendue Bay. Merv and I were empty and desperately needed some nutrition. But the damage was done and for the next hour we were trying to play catch up at aid stations having as much sugar and energy as we could take.
In the final 11 km of the race which included 3.6 km of swimming, we lost three positions to other teams, we were slowed to a crawl for a substantial period of time, and had switched to survival mode.
We entered the water for the 1km swim to Ruby Island having recovered somewhat, then after a short 200 metre jog on Ruby Island it was another 800m swim to Roys Bay, and the final 800 m run to the finish.
We finish ninth team overall, and have learnt some valuable lessons about swim run, the importance of nutrition and being an endurance event, it’s something that I should have known better!
We also learnt some new tactics that could be adapted for future attempts at this race, and I have no doubt that we will be back.
Breca Wanaka was awesome! The event will grow in popularity, and racing around Lake Wanaka was breathtaking - a stunning location for an event of this nature.
Breca Wanaka also offered a shorter sprint version swim run, with 15km running and 3.5km swimming.
The rock stars from Red Bull racing – Braden Currie and Courtney Atkinson - raced that event, racing away to win the race overall, and ensuring there was lots of media coverage for this pioneering new event in NZ.
Local triathletes Leah Barnfield and Melanie Hansen also teamed up for the sprint event, and picked up second place in the females teams – fantastic result for them.