Friday 20 October 2023

Swimrun on the French Riviera - Part 1

I had been doing swimming and running training during this year, so it was time to do a Swimrun event. I took the plunge and headed to the South of France to do the Otillo Swimrun, Cannes

Last year I somehow got through the whole 12 months without taking part in a single swimrun event, despite having done regular training. I didn't want 2023 to go the same way. Sadly, the year didn't start as well as planned as I suffered from a bout of patella syndrome, so doing any race was the last thing on my mind. I wasn't confident that I had the fitness to make a decent account of myself so didn't enter any races of any sort in advance. 

Eventually, once my knee healed and I began to resume training, I sent off my entry for the Grafham Water SwimRun, organised by the As Keen As Mustard crew. However, when race-day came I didn't feel confident that I would race in the way I wanted, and might end up feeling disappointed with my comeback. So, not believing I was strong enough to make the trip up to Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, I opted to stay put in London. 

To be honest, after looking at some of the pictures of the windswept landscape providing the backdrop for bedraggled competitors crawling out of the vast, choppy reservoir, I was comfortable with my decision.
Mind you, I was less happy to have lost £53 for my no-show at the event! So with that, I resolved to only enter events when I felt absolutely sure that I would go - even if it meant paying a premium entry fee for entering a few days before the event. It was better to do that than to pay an early bird "cheaper price" which was not actually that cheap, and then lose the money for yet again another no-show.

Doing things this way meant that by Autumn my racing season had consisted of just two triathlons, Swim Serpentine open water event (deferred from last year due to the state funeral of Elizabeth II), and the Paris-Versailles Grande Classique running race. Some might argue that my season was on a roll, but this is a far cry from the old days when I would do between 15 and 20 events per season. 

In any case, a swimrun was was noticeably absent from this assortment of activities, so beckoning. With the season-end fast approaching, I needed to get my rear into gear pretty damn quick and put on a swimrun bib.

Well, very handily I had a choice of two events, both of them in one of my favourite places, the French Riviera. In late October would be SwimRun Cote d'Azur in Nice; a week earlier, Ottilo SwimRun would be contested in Cannes. My gut reaction would have been to take on both events.

However, my competitive eyes were bigger than my racing stomach, and I felt it more prudent to pick one event. 

Cannes was the preferred choice as it is part of the most famous franchise in the world of swimrun, and arguably the reference standard among these races. There would likely be a large, international field as opposed to the Nice event which seemed smaller in organisation and with mainly local French participants. Although this event cost a little less than the Otillo race, flights to Nice in late October were more expensive than for the mid-October Cannes race due to it happening at the start of the half-term school holidays. So I booked a mid-October flight to Nice, all set to race in Cannes.

As swimrun events involve constantly alternating between running and swimming over a set route, the headline event information is given as the total running distance and the total swimming distance. You then look at the route in more detail on the event website to see the breakdown of the number and distances of the runs and  swims as well as the route for each section. 

Ottilo Cannes offered a choice of three distances: the full distance - 33km run/8km swim; sprint distance - 10km run/3km swim; experience distance - 5km run/2km swim. 

I opted for the Experience distance, so my race wouldn't be starting until 10.30am on the Saturday morning, which seemed a civilised time to start a race, and made a change from a 7am start for the triathlons I'd done.  

From my lodgings near Nice St Augustin station, I caught the 8.15 train to make the hour-long journey to Cannes. Then with my hired bicycle I cycled a mile to reach the Juliana Hotel to register, before following the waymarked route to the event village on the nearby Plage Zamenhof.

Along the main drag, known as La Croisette, there was a buzzing atmosphere as hundreds of wet-suit-clad athletes wearing race bibs were milling around the promenade with friends and family, or in front of the gazing eyes of the locals. The area was a sea of orange and purple bibs and hats, with folks wearing trail shoes, minimalist or barefoot shoes all in varying styles and colours. 

These are the shoes worn for swimrun, as events generally involve running on trails or other off-road areas. Minimalist shoes work well (if you can run in them) as they are light and won't weigh your legs down so much when swimming - yes, you swim with your shoes on.

Wetsuits are specially made for swimrun. They just come down to your knees and zip up at the front. There are one or two pockets to allow you to carry things like a compass and whistle, a first-aid kit, a collapsible cup, and a couple of refreshments. The neoprene is a similar thickness to a triathlon/open water wetsuit but with a lot more flexibility to allow you to run in it - yes you run with your wetsuit on. 

Many people had short-sleeved or sleeveless wetsuits given the particularly hot autumn temperatures, though I was still happy to wear my wetsuit with long sleeves. It is unheard-of for me to get too hot during an event involving open-water swimming!

Among the crowds a wide selection of languages could be heard. Naturally, there was a predominance of French, but German, Italian, English, and Swedish were also spoken by significant numbers of athletes, to reflect the global appeal of this sport which began following a bet in a pub in 2002, between some friends, to see how far they could swim and run across the Stockholm archipelago. 

Folks had travelled from as far afield as the US or South Africa, and I also saw folks from back home. I even noticed a woman in Tri London kit. It seemed that many local residents had come out to see the spectacle after having seen the adverts for the event, and perhaps had watched it over the years since its inaugural edition in 2018.

Even though I felt sure I could cover the distance, and I felt comfortable in my environment, having made many trips to the Côte d'Azur, I felt a sense of nervous anticipation, when looking at these seriously finely tuned male and female athletes - swimrun veterans. Of course, I was fit, and agewise I probably was a veteran - though not in swimrun terms, given I didn't have the experience to match my advancing years. 

Oh well, I just needed to reassure myself that the distances I was doing were less than what I'd done in training sessions back home in London. Furthermore, I had been swimming in the Mediterranean every day for the previous four days, so this should not hold any surprises. At the worst case scenario my French was good enough to flag down a Good Samaritan and catch a lift back to base if things totally belly-flopped! 

My main concerns were that my shoes wouldn't come off while swimming, and my untested goggles purchased just the previous day would not be too loose and fill with water. Oh, and I hoped I would't lose my timing chip, or find myself alone all at sea, not knowing which way to swim. My head was filled with a lot of thoughts, but I was determined to stay in control - sort of!

After dropping off my rucksack at the bag drop, all Sprint and Experience distance athletes gathered at the start gantry for a warm-up and pre-race briefing. 

Surprisingly, the briefing was done only in English, which seemed strange given that we were very much in France. Regardless of the language the official spoke, I and the rest of us rang out a welcome cheer on hearing that the sea was free of jellyfish. 

Briefing over, we had a final opportunity to acclimatise to the water, so I used this moment to dunk myself in the sea and check that my new Speedo goggles were doing their job. They felt fine. 

Then I rejoined my fellow athletes to anxiously await the start gun. "The water's a really nice temperature isn't it?" I said in French to two women with whom I stood alongside. "It's super," replied one of them, smiling. 

We then continued our conversation, talking about where we were from and our experience in swimrun. They were two friends who had travelled down from Lyon. Like me, they were newcomers to the sport.

Emmanuelle had done this event the previous year as her first ever swimun race. This event was therefore her second swimrun. Juliette had done just one previous swimrun near her home. They would be racing as a pair for the first time. It was reassuring to meet two people in the same boat as me.

After Emmanuelle gave me a few tips on what to expect along the course, and us joking about meeting up at the finish some time before nightfall, the countdown to zero began, and at the gun we sprang forward to the whoops and cheers of the spectators. 

Our first challenge was the roughly 1km run along the camber of the beach. This was already pretty taxing on my legs as I ran along the beach  like I was drunk - and my shoes were filling with sand. This was going to be more complicated than anticipated.

(See link below for Part 2)

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