Since Valentine’s Day is still in my rear view mirror, I thought I’d write about some of my favorite races, how I trained for them and what I learned.
Number 1: Uto
What I liked:
I had never done a swimrun before Uto and was overwhelmed at what a unique experience it was. Swimming and running through Swedish islands in the Baltic Sea is not something I get the opportunity to do very often and even though I was exhausted with almost every step and swim stroke, I couldn’t get over the scenery and it is hands down, my favourite race of any type.
The bond that it created between Nancy and I was incredible. I was so proud of both of us for completing that race and marvelled at how she excelled during the whole race. Nothing about that race seemed to phase her, not the cold, not the terrain or the toll on her aerobic capacity.
I was the opposite. The first swim portion I literally froze. I was wearing a ten year old surf suit and I could not believe how cold the water was. Had Nancy not been treading water, waiting for me to come out of shock, I would have climbed back on the bank and trudged back to the hotel to snuggle under the covers for the rest of the day. We’re both not trail runners but she was much more graceful in the woods, rocks and mud than I was. I had to fish out my shoe from mud holes several times and had a couple of good spills on some boulder sections. I also gassed out on a long running section and had to walk a bit while she patiently walked beside me until I could start running again.
How I trained:
Not very well or much. As stated in a previous blog, when Nancy first told me about Uto and proposed running it, I thought it was an adorable race. Forty some odd kilometres through trails and sea didn’t seem that much to me. I’d been a lifetime long distance runner and at that point had several triathlons, Ironmans and ultras completed so I didn’t think it would be much of a challenge.
The months leading up to Uto were also busy ones for me at work so during the week I didn’t have much time to train, a few 10K runs, a couple of 20k bikes to work, I thought would suffice for mid week training. On the weekends, Nancy and I would do some swimrunning along the Prom and in the sea from where we live in Nice. She would be giving it her all and pushing for us to go further but I thought we were fine at a maximum 2 hour swimrun workout. She begged to differ and I begged for coffee and pancakes.
Part of my ignorance lay in the cutoff times. When I looked at them, it seemed that if we kept a 6 minute km run pace and a 20 minute km swim pace we would be fine. We could do both of those for hours without a problem. In fact, those paces are a piece of cake for us and that is literally not bragging when you consider what half decent race paces are. The problem with swimruns is that you never know what terrain you are going to get. Personally, I can’t go much faster than a tiptoe quick walk on wet slippery rocks. Muddy trails and running in the woods with no trail will also slow down your pace. Swimming in open water is also slower than your pool pace. There’s wind, waves, veering off course and the cold… the ever present soul sucking power of the cold, cold, frigid, Scandinavian waters. By the end of a swimrun, even if you’re in excellent aerobic shape, the cold just saps your energy. You feel it in the water as though your batteries are draining.
What I learned:
Now I train much differently for swimruns. At least twice a week I throw in speed intervals for both swimming and running. I try to shed more weight as well so that I can be as fast as possible. That way I can take advantage of flat, non-technical sections of the race to make up for lost time on technical sessions. For triathlons I would train mostly in a pool and only rarely do open swims. Now I almost never train in a pool. We’re lucky because we live so close to the Mediterranean but if you can train in open water as much as possible its extremely helpful for swimruns. You learn how to swim straight and work with the rhythm of the water when it’s wavy or choppy.
Now when Nancy and I are training for a swimrun the weekends are all about packing in miles. Saturday we will spend five to seven hours swimrunning. Sundays are a 20k run. That is a lot of training but if you think you have to stick to that schedule don’t feel like it’s ironclad. We’re not a very fast team so your long swimrun days may be hours shorter than ours. We try to mimic whatever race intervals we’re training for so that on race day we’re used to the swim and run splits as they come up.
What I liked:
This was my first 100K so that’s one of the reasons why I liked it. Millau is a small town in the mid southern region of France and like almost all of France, gorgeous. The race is held at the end of September so the weather is perfect long distance running weather. Day time temperatures are around 18°C and it didn't dip much lower than 14°C even around midnight when I finished the race. Besides being a beautiful course every aid station (one every 5K) is filled with food provided by local businesses and restaurants. Each station had the obligatory bottled water, orange and banana slices but you also had a culinary surprise at each station: local wine, cheese, chocolate, stews, sausages, foie gras… It’s a great race and one I’ll probably do again.
What I learned:
Bring appropriate equipment, spoil yourself post race and pacing.
Bring appropriate equipment: It was raining lightly when the race started and the weather report called for heavy rain later in the day. I had a nice gortex jacket with me but didn’t want to get it sweaty. I don’t know why but I thought it would be better to save it for the next day when I was finished and walking to the bus. I left it in the hotel room and six hours into the race, the rain came down like it was from a firehose. When night came on, it was very chilly. I was soaked to the bone and shivering but a plastic garbage bag from one of the aid stations warmed me right up. Yes the jacket was nice and clean for the bus ride home but it would have been better than a garbage bag on race day.
This has crossed over to our swimrun training. We still experiment with what is the best equipment for us and on race day bring whatever it is we think we may need. We’ve also invested in good wetsuits realising that especially with wetsuits, you get what you pay for.
Pacing: I had done ultras before Millau but my strategy was always to run without breaks until I had nothing left and then to try and suffer through to the end. I had read that most people who do ultras mix walking with running but this seemed like cheating to me. I also thought it would slow me down. Training, I discovered that I could run long distances much faster if I ran for 5K then walked for 1K and kept alternating that strategy until done. Provided ligaments don’t snap, I can run forever with that strategy.
Spoil yourself: I booked a very cheap hotel for the race in order to save money. It was basically a step above a youth hostel. The night before the race, this wasn’t a big deal. I usually don’t sleep that much before a race anyway. But the night after the race, you really should spoil yourself. Post race I stumbled into my room a little after midnight, soaking wet and muddy from the knee down as it had rained for most of the race. I wasn’t even hungry (which is saying something for me) and all I wanted was a nice warm shower and snuggle up into bed. There was no hot water in the shared shower down the hall from my room. I assume all the other racers had used it up. Furthermore, the hotel owner had yet to turn on the heat in the hotel rooms. After a cold shower, I basically shivered the night away on those crappy hospital like industrial sheets and polyester duvet. Now staying in a nice hotel, post race is a must.
The Big Sur Marathon. Whatever your feelings are about the US and travelling there, it doesn’t matter when you run a race that starts in the giant Redwoods and winds along the Pacific Coast Highway without a car in sight and all of the best California coast views you could ask for.
I grew up in a small town north of Toronto. I started running on country roads and fell in love with long distance running when I was twelve years old. I loved (and still do) getting up just before the sun and going for a run in the country. Running in Canada you get everything from 30+°C heat in the summer and minus 20°C cold in the winter. I started challenging myself when I was 13 and would just run for hours on the weekends not really knowing the distances or pace but just seeing if I could run to the next town and back and then set a new challenge. I first heard about an Ironman when I read an article about it in Sports Illustrated when I was about 13 years old. At the time, an Ironman was a disorganized, crazy endurance challenge and I set my sights on doing one. Finally did my first Ironman more than ten years later in Canada out in British Columbia after completing several marathons and several smaller triathlons. I finished. I still remembered how exhausting that first one was. Although I’m not fast, I love the endurance aspect of sports. This led me to the world of ulra-marathons where I’ve done a 50 mile, 100KM and 100 mile race. A few years ago, my wife told me about these swimrun races in Scandanavia. Easily the toughest endurance event I’ve done because you need to not only have endurance but you have to be quick. Then there’s the challenge of nature, the cold and trails. The best thing about it is being a team with my wife and sharing the highs and the lows that a demanding endurance sport brings. One moment you’re telling each other to fuck off and the next you’re kissing at the finish line.something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.
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