First SwimRun in Thailand
Barring Marcus, all swim-run beginners…but all endurance junkies
The origin of new races are not always clear, as memories fade and people move on. I wanted to leave a trace of this one, without the objective of providing a synopsis of what happened, but just a testimony of what I saw and lived. I apologise in advance if it is partial…
After the swim-run test done by Olivier Courret and myself in Hong Kong earlier in December and my registration to the Ötillö World Championship qualifier race in UK, I emphatically worked on triggering interest from Jürgen Zäck, the triathlon legend based in Phuket with whom I train whenever I have the chance. I’m obviously not the one who convinced Jürgen that swim-run must be fun as he immediately responded by mentioning that this should be something he could organise in Phuket.
I knew Jürgen Zäck was looking for a new challenge for New Year. The last years he organised a 10k swim pool challenge, under the format of 100x100m, but he felt he needed to find something new this time. Knowing Phuket beaches very well, he designed several courses for a swim-run challenge, some more challenging than others, and opted for one spanning over 6 beaches, from Bantao to Laem Sing.
The last 2 weeks before D day were very active, as the future course was hotly debated during post workout group breakfasts. The biggest discussion was about the length of the first swim leg. While the first estimates were around 2.5k, the latest were closer to 4k. That length pretty much would leave several competitors out of contention, as it is too long of an ocean swim, especially out and back.
“I tell you, it’s 2.5k, no it’s 4k!”
Two days before the challenge, Jürgen hurt his back and running became out of question for him. He asked some of us if we could follow him into the water at the beginning of the race and skip the optional beach run. I must say that I was looking forward to a long swim and didn’t push for more running, as I had twisted my ankle two weeks before and wasn’t sure I could run on sand and rocks for long, and also because I wanted a decent swim replacement for the beloved 100x100m tradition.
Meanwhile, Marcus Hültgren did what Pros do: he prepared himself for the race. He checked the beach runs, the rocks, the optimum swim channels, and designed in his mind a trajectory that would minimise the swim distance and maximise the run distance. Very few triathletes are as experienced as Marcus as he raced Ötillö World Championship 6 times, finished 3rd in the open category once, 4th twice and 2nd in the mixed team category in 2015. That’s why Marcus had a big target in his back, as we ‘pure triathletes’ wanted to see how we would fare against such a specialist in this discipline.
I had swum several swim workouts in the lane next to Marcus and I know I was on par with him when using paddles, and faster without, but I had never swum open water with him. I saw in training that his running skill was far superior, and I imagined that his trail running skill -his strength- was even better.
Marcus was not the only strong competitor in the field, as Ray -the fastest Thai triathlete- has become over the years a very strong open water swimmer and can run like the wind. Then there was Colin O Shea, relatively new to triathlon but with an incredibly strong swimmer background, way better swimmer than any of us, who won all the triathlons he entered in 2015. And of course Jürgen, severely affected by his back problem, but always a factor -remember that he came 3rd in his age group in Kona less than 3 months ago… We didn’t expect the others to be podium contenders… And that was almost a mistake!
As Marcus explained to me, the gear for swim-run races has evolved over the years to become pretty standard, with few variations within the top 10 racers: specifically designed wetsuits (irrelevant in Thailand), paddles (usually huge ones), pull buoy attached to one leg with slings in order to run with it, shoes that don’t retain water.
The choice of gear was in line with the choice of trajectory we made before the race. Jürgen, Ray, Colin and myself prepared ourselves for a long swim traverse and only short beach runs, so we equipped ourselves with paddles and fins. Several of those opting to start with a beach run opted for pullbuoys attached to one leg and no fins, while a few others found an ambiguous solution, by wearing specific fins over specific shoes…
I arrived at 6:20am for a planned start of this low-key event at approximately 6:30am. We distributed our aid station drinks to our kind volunteers who sacrificed their morning workout to provide us with support at Surin and Laem Sing beaches. Some others opted for an alternate challenge by running back through a different way, shortening the swim, but being not ranked in the end. So only 8 hardliners took off for the full challenge after listening to a fun introduction from Jürgen, who stated that in 10 years we will all be regarded as fantastic pioneers as this challenge would be worldwide famous. It was of course all a big joke, although both Ironman and Ötillö did start with only a handful of crazy dudes, just like us.
We will be admired for several generations to come !
The swim started at what felt like a manageable pace. Still, the four strongest swimmers soon separated from the others. I kept a worried eye on Colin, as I didn’t know how fast he could be. We all committed to stay together for the first half, but I know that even if we want to, what happens in the water is often difficult to control. I didn’t pay attention at the start to those who opted to start by a beach run. We had discussed with Jürgen who said that the beach run would be 2km long, approx 9′ running on sand, but would save only 500m of swimming, around 7’30. So to me the race would be decided between the swimmers, and who knows what Marcus, who started by a beach run, would do.
Serious stuff, I’m telling you
The swim to Surin beach was one of my best swims ever. I only had a glimpse at my watch after 2000m, thinking that the pace, the company and the scenery were just perfect. We took a very wide curve and I could see the beaches from very far. After 4000m it started to feel mentally a bit long, as swimming one shot beyond the Ironman distance is not something usual. I asked Colin who was next to me where to go and he didn’t know either so we kept going straight, unaware that we were missing the first aid station and a beach run on Surin beach that would have saved a bit our arms and shoulders. After 5k I started to feel really good again and managed to lengthen my stroke further and progressively went slightly ahead of the group. I was in my own bubble and lost track of the surrounding. I turned to backstroke to see the others… And discovered that they were heading to the next beach. I calculated that I probably swam 100m too many, if not more, and got really upset about it. I increased my cadence and got a bit closer to the others, but I could see from far Jürgen and Ray getting out the water and being handed drinks, with Colin right behind. And of course Jürgen found it exciting and funny to leave without waiting for me.
So much for the nice group swim, the race started right there. I had to dig really deep to keep the others within reach. We reached Surin beach on the way back for a short beach run. My sore ankle did not help. I knew Jürgen couldn’t run properly but I didn’t get any closer, though. I was getting nervous. Why oh why did Jürgen have to do this ? Colin told me to calm down and we decided that we would swim together. By joining our forces we knew we could out-swim Jürgen and Ray. Unfortunately we didn’t take the same line and we both had to fight on our own, trying to reach our opponents. I could see I was getting closer and closer, until we all reached a stretch where the water got really rough. Jürgen really strives in rough water and here I was, making no more than 1 or 2m on Jürgen and Ray here and there. Colin’s fate at the time looked even worse, he took a longer trajectory and was behind me, on the left side. The water got really rough and I was starting to get tired, mentally even more than physically. Suddenly, coming from nowhere, I saw Colin literally piercing the water and catching Jürgen and Ray, while I was no more than 5m behind them. As soon as they regrouped, Colin led the newly formed group at a crazy pace and I progressively lost contact. I knew the race outcome could be decided right there… I opted for keeping pushing as long as I could, hoping for a miracle as Colin was showing prowess that I couldn’t match. And then it happened, the group got stuck in shallow water and had to slow down, just like it happened to me a few minutes before. I jumped back on the train and stayed with it. I could feel that Colin was cranking an even faster gear but I was boosted by the new situation and managed to somehow stick with him, while Ray seemed to be going through a rough patch of his own. The beach was getting closer and Colin was still hammering. Jürgen dropped the group, opting for a longer swim by changing his trajectory, while we opted to finish by a beach run. Colin offered to run together to the finish, a nice gesture given that he would probably have won a beach sprint. We did finish the three together, a fantastic feeling of achievement.
It’s all about the experience, not the win, nor the clock
Right there, within 10 seconds after finishing, we learnt our lesson. We discovered that Marcus beat us by 13’. That blew my mind away, as we swam extremely well, at 1:28/100m average over 9.4km, and I couldn’t figure out how he could beat us by that much. Well, Marcus used his skills and experience and gave us a great lesson. He managed to swim at least 2km less than us and replace it by running. As he gently explained to us: “running always beats swimming”, “even crawling on rocks does”. And indeed, if we swim at 4kph (best case), slow walking still beats it. The second lesson was to see Leanne, former pro triathlete and still excellent swimmer, finish one minute behind us, and right in front of Jürgen. Leanne used the same technique as Marcus by running more and while she raced on her own (hence working more in the swim), she almost beat us. Rock scrambling did take its toll on some competitors though, as a couple of other finishers brought home some bad rashes.
Marcus, the Viking king
The award ceremony was equally fun and low key and we all spent almost as much time drinking and eating for recovery after the race than exercising. I spent some time with Marcus after the race, listening to the tricks of swim-run racing, as I already did a couple of times before. This challenge was completely different from the European races, which can be defined as: cold, with lots of transitions, and much more running than swimming. Our friendly new year’s event was more a long swim in tropical water with a bit of beach run here and there. As soon as we finished we started to think about how to improve the whole experience, by making more check points compulsory, making sure that there are more transitions, improve the swim/run distribution, making it more doable (that 5k swim was a bit unnecessary), etc. and also getting sponsors on board, find the right name, advertise it, etc.
Nice ceremony… but where are the sponsors ?
Swim-run carries the elements that attracted me to triathlon in 2000 and trail running in 2006: a relatively new kind of race, with different formats, attracting a nice crowd from different sports, where people like me can experience new challenges, with gear that still need to be refined, and coaching methods that still need to be discovered. Just like trail running, swim-run gives access to more wilderness and gives that feeling on man immersed in nature that triathlon rarely provides.
The ultimate goal!
I wrote this report as a tribute to Jürgen Zäck and his wonderful Z- coaching team and to Marcus Hültgren for his contagious love for swim-run, and also to swim-run itself, for which I hope to trigger interest within the usual suspects of the endurance community who know me/read me.
Z-coaching announcement on FB
THE SWIMRUN CHALLENGE IS FOR EXPERIENCED SWIMMERS ONLY!
WE DO HAVE THE “LIGHT VERSION” if you do not feel comfortable with the distance!
6:30am Z-Coaching Phuket New Years SWIMRUN Challenge
2km run (Outrigger to south end of Bang Tao Beach)
5km swim Bang Tao to Surin (exit at THE SURIN for 400m otional)
750m run Surin Beach (drink station)
650m swim (Surin to Lem Sing)
250m run to ALI Restaurant Lem Sing
TURNAROUND with drink station
650m swim Lem Sing to Surin
750m run Surin beach (drink station)
5km swim Surin to Bang Tao (exit at THE SURIN for 400m beach run optional)
2km run (back to Outrigger)
“Challenge light” version:
450m swim (Outrigger rope loop)
4km run to Bang Tao south end and return
450m swim (Outrigger rope loop)
50m FINISH SPRINT to Outrigger
Any equipment (paddles, pull bouy, fins, shoes) allowed but must be carried around from start to finish!
Dropping out in Surin at the drink station optional.
Social Breakfast and little awards ceremony at Outrigger
Please keep in mind:
– Participation at your own risk!
– Private paddler, kayak allowed and recommended!
– visible swim caps advised!
– bring your own energy drink for aid station and drop off at start before 6:30am, water will be provided!
Ray, Colin, Oliver 2:35:50
(Imo – 2:15, Justin 2:20 running from Surin)
I am a reformed banker, proud father of two and professional endurance coach offering tailor-made training plans and specific guidance on all triathlon and endurance sports topics.