Monday 23 October 2023

Swimrun on the French Riviera - part 2

The start gun fires and we go hurtling along the beach at Cannes for the Otillo Experience SwimRun. This was my first swimrun event outside of the UK. Although I had done a few events before, I had felt a bit of trepidation about how things would go. It turned out to be a great event and a fun day.

From the start gun we all ran as fast as we could, with varying degrees of skill, negotiating our way through the thick sand of Plage Zamenhof on the Cannes Croisette. 

My body was incapable of moving much quicker than jogging pace due to how challenging it was to take strides in a straight line. I wasn't drunk, honest!

Beach running was something I had not thought about, let alone practiced during my training preparation. How could I have totally overlooked this aspect of the race, knowing full well that it was a coastal swimrun? My bad.

As the mass of runners sailed off into the distance leaving me behind, I immediately realised my main goal would need to be revised from finishing on a target time, to just finishing - hopefully without it being painfully slow. That may be easier said than done. 

The Experience and Sprint races didn't have any cut-off times, so I had almost all day to complete the distance - but then again if I did take all day I could forget about seeing Emmanuelle and Juliette this afternoon. Hopefully I could meet them for dinner!

Mind you, after all said and done, the great thing about this race were the views. Running along the beach with the sea washing over your feet, set against a backdrop of Regency architecture and palm trees was certainly not something to complain about. I could put up with that all day!

Although things were slow-going for me, I wasn't in last place. As the bay curved round to the right, I looked behind and saw that there were folks slower than me. This included a few older men and women, plus a man paired with a boy, who looked around 10 years old - maybe his son.

The father had the build of a very experienced athlete as he ran smoothly and comfortably. Meanwhile the little boy was putting in every effort to run as fast as he could along the beach, as one often sees with young kids starting out in competitive sport, only to have to slow down to a walk and take a breather. This meant I, with my slow and steady tortoise pace managed to gain ground on the pair.

Just when I began to think I couldn't continue for much longer through this sand, the course took us onto tarmac, and things became much more straightforward than the previous 10 minutes.

Gathered crowds and marshals cheered us on and applauded as we left the beach, albeit still giving that "rather you than me" look.

Soon after came Swim 1, but not without climbing over a rocky bank. I followed the line of the woman in front of me, though she was clearly hesitant about where to step. Not wanting to take risks and try and get past her, I preferred to stay behind and wait while she made up her mind. Not a very competitive mentality, I know, but I was intent on staying safe.

Consequently, I lost a few places as the athletes overtook us. I was content to take my time in order to feel comfortable for this swim. 

Although folks were certainly competitive, as you would expect in a race, there was still an atmosphere of camaraderie among the participants, with folks pointing out any unexpected hazards to one another, or giving each other words of encouragement. 

A fit, lean woman did a U-turn on the rocks as though she was about to leave the race. "Are you okay?" I asked her in French. "No, I've lost my goggles." A little puzzled, given I could clearly see them on her head, I asked, "Do you have two pairs then?" "No," she replied. "Only one." "Well, they're on your head - you haven't lost them!"

Putting her hand on her head to feel they were still firmly in place, she then laughed with a mixture of embarrassment and relief. "Ah, I was convinced I had dropped them. I'd forgotten I'd put them on my head. What a relief, thank you." Then she got in the water and swam away rather quickly. Racing nerves makes you play tricks on your mind, as well as being forgetful.

My own goggles in place, and pull buoy secured between my thighs, I slowly lowered myself in for the first swim of the race, the section where I generally feel the most apprehensive. In fact, when I hit the water it felt pretty pleasant. 

Sighting was very easy, since I just needed to follow the mass of swimming hats in front. Furthermore, the water was lovely and clear, making it easy to see other swimmers through the water. As long as I had a pair of legs in front of me I didn't even need to stick my head out of the water to do sighting - provided those swimmers were going the right way! 

The only thing was that because many people were racing in pairs it meant that sometimes one person in the pair would swim a little and then suddenly slow down to wait for their partner to catch up. The rule in swimrun is you can't be more than 20m apart when running and 10m apart when in the water, so strong swimmers didn't have the chance to swim too far ahead if their partner was slower than them. That was quite handy for me, as it gave me the impression of constantly overtaking swimmers, which was motivational. 

In fact, I was quite surprised at how many people I caught up with in the water, considering I was one of the last to get going. I am by no means a strong swimmer, but it's amazing what using a big pull buoy and hand paddles can do to improve your technique and speed! 

The 750m swim took us back to the start/finish area of the event, where an even larger crowd had gathered, there was pop music, and the MC was commentating on what was going on. 

This was also the place to fuel up at the feed station with a selection of dried fruit, energy bars, energy drinks and water. I made the most of the supplies, but then remembered I only had about 4km of running left to do, and given that I already had energy gels on me I was probably overfuelled!

Running past the spectators along the Zamenhof plage was uplifting, as I was accompanied by the sound of "Allez, Bravo" and avid clapping. A few volunteers who had been staffing the sign-on desk recognised me and gave an especially big cheer.

Then it was onwards to a residential area of Cannes, where the road went uphill. That was the only part of the race where there was a proper hill. Thankfully it was only brief.

Swim 2, a 500m stretch, was beautiful as I spotted various schools of fish. It was something I hadn't expected to see. You don't often get that in the London Docks, my usual open-water swimming venue. So this was quite a novelty.

Swim 3 was the part that Emmanuelle had warned me about - the one where you jump into the water from a pontoon. Jumping into water is something I never do - it's my total bugbear. I don't know how to dive, and I have also been conditioned to associate jumping into water with potentially getting cold water shock. If there had been any possible way of lowering myself into the water gently, I would have taken it. But that option was not available at all. So I took my time preparing myself, and particularly making sure my goggles were firmly in place. Nearby, the lifeguards on paddleboards watched me carefully, almost as though they were anticipating some sort of drama. After a couple of deep breaths in and out I took a graceful plop into the Mediterranean, ready to breath out and blow out any water that might enter my nose or mouth. With the water at 23 degrees Celsius there really wasn't anything to worry about, and anxiousness was over before it began. Then I swam along again, enjoying the sight of more schools of fish, some pretty looking algae, and various pairs of legs.

Throughout the race there were a couple of lone athletes, like myself with whom I played cat and mouse. I was probably a quicker runner and swimmer than them, but I was very slow at the entry points into the water. I was slow at adjusting the pull buoy to between my thighs, slow at putting on my hand paddles, and I really deliberated when getting my goggles in place. Plus, whenever the terrain looked slightly dicey, like over shingle or rocks, I slowed right down to a walk and would even spend time procrastinating about the best/safest line to take. Once in the water I would overtake them and make up some good ground, only to lose it all again at the next transition. It's a good job I wasn't feeling so competitive!

Swim 4, the final leg of the race, at 600m, was the second longest swim, and also the hardest for me because I was beginning to feel tired. The fatigue was mainly in my upper arms and pectoral muscles. Hand paddles are really good at improving your speed in the water, but they do work muscles that bit more than without them. I had done regularly training with them, though clearly not enough.

However, I was motivated by the sight of the event village in the distance. At this point there was no one in sight ahead of me, so I would have to do some sighting and pick the racing line. But I wasn't sure where the racing line was. All I could see was the event village, spread over about 75 metres across the beach, with no clear sign of the finish gantry. So I just swam in the general direction of the event area, and hoped that the actual race route and finish line would eventually become clear. 

By the time I neared the beach my swim route had taken me a good 30 metres off the racing line! On exiting the water to reach the finish gantry I suddenly did get a bout of competitive spirit, as a swimmer I had previously overtaken, and who did follow the shortest line when swimming was about to cross the finish line ahead of me. I wasn't having that! So my legs managed to find the energy to spurt through the sand, and I just snuck in front of her - which I like to think was fair enough in a racing environment. I'll take even the small wins!

Crossing the finish line, I was really elated to have gotten through my first swimrun abroad. I hadn't been sure if it was a prudent thing to do, as a swimrun newbie, especially as I hadn't done any events this year. But I think this event in Cannes proved to be the right decision, and the best option when doing a first event on foreign soil.

After the finish line buzz, and making the most of the post-race nibbles, I got showered and changed at the nearby beach huts.

While gathering my things together I got chatting to different people, including a couple of folks from the UK who were employees of VivoBarefoot, one of the sponsors of the race.

Soon, Juliette and then Emmanuelle came up and chatted to me and we had our post-race lunch in the buffet tent together, reminiscing over that tough beginning on the beach, the daunting first swim,  and who spotted the lovely starfish on the sea bed. 

We also talked about our results, which we were happy with. I finished in just over 1hour 30 minutes, while Emmanuelle and Juliette, who raced as a pair, took just under that time  We all resolved to go 10 minutes quicker next year. Yes, we had already decided to return here next year.

They had no intention of doing any of the longer distances at the Cannes SwimRun, and wanted the emphasis to be on having fun. However, Emmanuelle later mentioned that her husband is an elite swimrunner and was in contention in the full-distance Otillo World Series race, which had begun at 9.15am on the Ile Sainte-Marguerite. Who knows, maybe his competitive spirit will rub off onto her and she might do a more challenging swimrun distance next year.

Sitting in the autumn sunshine, enjoying the sea view, while listening to the animated commentator, with pumping pop music in the background added to the feelgood factor of being on the French Riviera. 

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and the time came for me to pack my kit and ride back to Nice, where I would then prepare to take my flight back to London.

It had been a fun day, and I was on a real high all the way home. A swimrun definitely enhances a holiday on the French Riviera!

Related posts

SwimRun on the French Riviera - part 1

Bewl Water SwimRun by As Keen as Mustard

VivoBarefoot minimalist shoes for swimrun

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