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Great North Swimrun 2019 – winning in the rain

Great Swim added swimrun to their programme in 2017 and it’s grown in popularity every year. With three distances to choose from, my favourite is the “middle” as this has the highest proportion of swimming to running.

I did this race for the first time in 2018. We had beautiful conditions and the first swim across Windermere ranks as one of my favourite open water swims ever. Starting from Brockhole, we swam 1170m through mirror flat water to Wray Castle, with stunning views in all directions.

It was very different in 2019. Clouds hid the mountains, a steady and persistent rain was falling and a fierce wind whipped up the lake’s surface. Event officials decided this made it too dangerous for swimming and instead ferried competitors over to Wray in a boat. Luckily, the other swims, while choppier and more challenging than last year, were able to go ahead as they mostly hugged the shoreline and were therefore less exposed.

As both Chris (my race partner) and I are better swimmers than runners, we were disappointed about losing around one third of the total swim distance as we knew this would negatively impact our chances of matching or improving on our second place of 2018. It also meant the tactics we’d discussed needed revising.

Once all the competitors had been delivered to Wray, we were given an updated race briefing and sent on our way. Instead of a mass swim start, we had a mass run start, and the first section was a steep uphill to the castle.

Caz Kay and Fiona Kesteven set the early pace, closely followed by Nicholas Gant and Steve Pugh. Chris and I decided to try to stay with them, although the pace was quicker than I wanted to go at this stage of the race. While two other runners moved into the lead for a short time, they soon dropped back and we didn’t see them again. We covered the first 5.7km in just under 28 minutes and arrived as a group of six for the first swim (or what should have been the second swim) of 330m.

At around 14 degrees, the water was a lot colder than last year, but it was a welcome relief to cool down after the intensity of the run. Chris and I managed to move to the front and gained about 20 to 30m in the water. Back on land we grabbed water and Clif blocks from the feed station and set off on the second run.

Great North Swimrun 2019 Ferry

Getting the ferry instead of swimming across the lake. Disappointing but necessary given the conditions.

For me, this was the most challenging section of the race. It’s 11.7km long and includes all the major climbs and off-road sections. The other two teams caught us up again after about two kilometres and we again ran as a pack until the next feed station, at which point Caz and Fiona pulled ahead again, while Nicholas and Steve dropped back temporarily to deal with a kit issue. However, they were soon back running again and shortly moved into the lead.

The second run took us an hour and while we’d lost sight of the others on the trails, we were relieved to see both teams not too far ahead in the water. We pushed hard on this 450m swim and overtook Caz and Fiona about half way through, but Nicholas and Steve were already out of sight again by the time we reached shore.

It was at this point last year that my legs decided they’d had enough and I was reduced to walking. This year, with a bit more training in them, I was able to continue running, but it wasn’t easy and I was definitely feeling the impact of that fast-paced first section. Every now and then we caught sight of Nicholas and Steve, knew we were probably only a minute or two behind and, with two swims still to go, realised we had a chance to catch them, if only we could keep up the pace. The pressure was on.

By the time we reached the penultimate swim at Waterhead, we’d closed the gap to perhaps 50m. This 630m swim section was our chance to move into the lead, we dug deep and overtook about half way through. We spent the final run section anxiously looking backwards expecting to be caught at any moment. However, we reached the final 760m swim section still in front, sprinted into the water and raced for the finish line. Nicolas and Steve arrived a couple of minutes later with Caz and Fiona not far behind.

It was good to win but I was disappointed last year’s winners (Joel Enoch and Joe Tomaney) couldn’t race this year due to injury. You can’t really make year-to-year comparisons because conditions vary, but we think we would have been about 15 minutes quicker than 2018 if the first swim had been there – and that would almost have matched Joel and Joe’s time. I’m not saying we could have beaten them, but it would have been fun to try and see how close we could have got. Maybe next year?

Read our 2018 event review

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Thanks to Yonda for the loan of the swimrun wetsuit!

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I created Outdoor Swimmer in 2011 (initially as H2Open Magazine) as an outlet for my passion for swimming outdoors. I've been a swimmer and outdoor swimmer for as long as I remember. Swimming has made a huge difference to my life and I want to share its joys and benefits with as many people as possible. I am also the author of Swim Wild & Free: A Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors 365 a Year and I provide one-to-one support to swimmers through Swim Mentoring.