As a Craghoppers ambassador, Al Barnard has a keen sense of adventure. When he’s not piloting Remote Operated Vehicles at sea, Al can be found on mountains, crags or by picturesque Scottish water. This sparked his latest interest, Swimrun events. Discover his story…
What is Swimrun?
When the conditions on the hills are wild and stormy but you still have the desire to get out the house, explore and expend some calories what better way is there than a Swimrun?
This combination of disciplines is big in Scandinavia where organised events are held that bring numerous islands together. In Sweden these events are called Otillo – which literally means island to island. Otillo athletes that pioneer these races manage to fine tune their kit, techniques and equipment to the enth degree! Me? I’m just a happy amateur.
Two great friends of mine both entered the Loch Ness event in September 2017. Named the Loch Ghu Loch the (accumulative) 47km distance runs and 8km swims are something you just can’t turn up for. Some serious training needs to happen before hand!
Over the last couple of years, a favourite mini-adventure option has been a Swimrun along the ever-changing sands between the Moray coastal towns of Nairn and Findhorn.
At a total distance of around 12 miles with 3 swims breaking up the run, a little planning is required; however, lessons are learned along the way which is then added to your tool box of knowledge.
Before the lessons are learned a number of inevitable questions will crop up….
What Swimrun equipment do I need?
Do I run in regular running kit then change into a wetsuit, then change again for the next running section?
After a couple of rounds of this route and experimenting a variety of kit systems, I have come to realise that the best and simplest option is to run in a “shortie” wet suit or an old cut down wetsuit (chopped above the knee). This prevents serious chaffing of the soft skin behind the knees. If you start overheating whilst running you can always unzip your suit and tie it off around your waist. A thin running top is ideal also. Some wetsuit manufacturers now produce bespoke Swim/run wetsuits.
I also now leave my trainers on for the swim. (For shoes that hold the water you can drill a few holes that will assist with drainage when you exit the swims). A neoprene swim cap with chin strap (From experience avoid “baggy” neoprene strap-less caps – waves tend to knock them off!) minimises the “ice cream headache”. A set of tried and tested swim goggles are essential and a pair of sunglasses will reduce the glare during your run on a bright day.
What Swimrun gear do I carry and how will I carry it?
A bum bag or small day sack can carry a waterproof camera, snacks and drink. Despite trying to separate wet and dry kit with a number of dry-bag options on previous Swimruns, everything tends to end up getting soaked and coated with sand! The four critical items I do place in small dry-bags are my mobile phone, car keys (prepositioned car for return journey), snacks and some cash for the post exercise refuel.
What about tides and wind?
The mouth of the river Findhorn has an extremely fast tidal flow and is not to be underestimated. At its fastest it will run at around 8 knots; just over 9 mph. The resident grey seals don’t appear to have a problem but for us humans this is a major consideration if we are to manage the risk safely.
For coastal routes; knowing the difference between Spring and Neap tides is also essential. Information on UK and worldwide tides can be found on the free Tides Near Me App.
• Spring Tide: the highest of the high waters and the lowest of the low waters. The greatest tidal range. These tides occur twice a lunar month during the full moon and a new moon.
• Neap Tide: The lowest of the high waters and the highest of the low waters. The smallest tidal range. These tides occur 7 days after a Spring Tide when the moon and the sun are at right angles to each other relative to the earth, the 1st and 3rd quarters of the lunar cycle.
I prefer starting the run at Spring tide – low water. Running from West to East with a prevailing Westerly wind assisting is a bonus. Starting at low water gives you the advantage of running on damp hard sand rather than on an angled pebble beach with the waves lapping at your heels!
The first leg
The first swim takes you over to the Old Bar, a long spit of narrow beach, dunes and in places sulphurous mud. Here I’ve spotted grey seals basking on the sand, a huge dog fox scavenging among the brackish pools at low water and a statuesque heron fish by a burn on the mud flats to the south.
Sadly, in contrast to the stark beauty of this place it’s all too easy to spot evidence of plastic waste washed up at the high water mark or blown by a northerly wind in to the grassy dunes beyond. It really is a case of “the more you look – the more you see”. Invariably I try to take some of the waste along with me to dispose of later but the sheer volume of detritus about makes this just a poor token effort.
The second of the swims takes you to the half-way point and close to Culbin forest. (Culbin forest was established in the 1920s and is planted with both Scots and Corsican pine which helps to minimise the erosion of the sand dunes). At this section you can normally spy and hear a large colony (200 or more) of boisterous grey seals.
Keeping a healthy and respectful distance from these handsome marine mammals will keep both Swimrunners and seals happy. I don’t know anybody who has been bitten by an unhappy seal but I wouldn’t want to find out. A fully-grown bull can weigh in excess of 300kg and at over 2m in length they are a force of nature and certainly rule the roost, especially if you’re getting too close to their pups!
I keep to my 3 simple rules on a Swimrun:
• Leave the animals alone.
• Take nothing but photographs – and rubbish if you can.
• Leave nothing but footprints.
The next 6 miles draws you ever closer to the picturesque Findhorn bay. This natural harbour was once home to a thriving shipbuilding and fishing industry and was the principle shipping port in Moray during the 17th century.
Here, wildlife co-exists with their watchers as well as sailors, yachtsmen, wind surfers and kayakers, fishermen. There is something here for everyone and always something to see.
This stunning area attracts an ephemeral light that artists and photographers attempt to capture. Wild salmon and sea-trout run through these tea-brown waters, predated by sleek otter, grey seal, bottle-nosed dolphin and osprey.
If you’ve got your timings right the tide should be on the flood as you arrive sweaty, salted and sandy on the west bank. The rationale for the timings are so that if you lose forward momentum during your swim across the mouth of the river you’ll only get washed in to Findhorn bay rather than spat out in to the Moray firth. Certainly the lesser of two evils.
This is probably the most strenuous part of the route and you must remain resolute, focusing your energies on your proposed exit whilst keeping an eye on your mates, you hope they are doing the same! (Solo swimming here is definitely not recommended and only strong swimmers who have been out before in tough and testing conditions should attempt this).
It’s worth surveying your intended route for any additional hazards like the tell-tale branches of submerged trees poking through the surface and their associated eddies before committing. The swim is challenging enough without any additional nasty surprises!
Usually an inquisitive seal or two will watch with amused eyes and fleeting interest as you enter the racing peaty water, then with a smack of a tail fin and a snort of derision they’ll torpedo away as you strike out, ferry-gliding across the gurgling expanse to the far side.
Ferry-gliding across the 150 metre gap of raging tide is easier said than done. The reality is that a metre or so into the water you quickly discover how steeply the channel drops off and how hard it becomes just to stand up due to the power of the current.
You are now committed and have to swim at maximum effort to make progress. It’s easy to let the imagination take over but right now a steady mind is definitely required and you have to push the demons in the head to one side. This is when all those crazy morning swims in the winter surf pay off and you know you are within your capabilities.
Stumbling out onto the east bank with tired legs, some 100 metres inland from your launch point it’s all relieved smiles and an easy 5 min run to the cafe for a well-earned pot of tea and a bacon roll.
A fumble of car keys with cold, numbed fingers, off with the Swimrun wetsuit and gritty trainers, rub down the pink & blue body in the carpark with a towel & on with warm dry kit, a Craghoppers jacket and a warm hat is just the job. What a great way to spend a Saturday morning.
Now, where’s that waterproofed tenner?
Top Swimrun Tips
• Start small. Go on a short run in good weather. Head to a stretch of water in familiar territory where the terrain isn’t too challenging. This could be a local stretchof beach, a loch or river. Build up gradually in good weather – there’s no rush!
• Get informed. Local area knowledge is key to success and safety during a Swimrun.
• Experiment with different Swimrun gear – discover what works best for you!
• Ensure the following are safe and manageable: Entry in to water – the swim – the exit.
• Tell people where you’re heading and give an estimated time of return.
• Take a mobile, snacks, drink and car keys (if required) and ensure they’re secure in a dry-bag.
• Check weather forecast and tides. Has there been recent heavy rain? Are the rivers full of washed out trees, branches and debris? If in doubt, save it for another day.
• A small water proof camera or GoPro is worth carrying to relive the highlights of your adventure.
• Keep the environment as you find it and if you can manage, pick up a manageable amount of litter.
• Stay safe and have fun.
Swimrun events are a great way to keep fit and get outdoors in some of the world’s most beautiful scenery. With appropriate training, and the right clothing and equipment, why not give Swimrun a try?