Breaststroke Swimbler to Swimrunner

With her 50th looming, Heather Palmer took on the Grafham Swimrun, her first ever.

Sometimes we get stuck; we tell ourselves stories, we put ourselves in boxes. I am a bad runner, a breaststroking swimbler, a passive thinker, a perimenopausal, not-in-the-least-bit-sporty, woman. At 49 years old, with the prospect of turning 50 looming large on the horizon, I decided, as many do, to write a list of things to tick off, things I have never done with my life, things I may struggle to do later, if left. But what on Earth possessed me to consider entering a swimrun?

Rewind to the pre-pandemic era and my brother had used cold water swimming to improve his mental health to impressive effect. I decided I wanted in, and we swam together practically every week for a good while. I could never do my own wetsuit up though so when, one day, I happened upon swimrun suits I thought, “great, finally a wetsuit I can do up myself”. I bought one and at the same time began to investigate the sport of swimrunning. Originating in 2002 in Sweden, the compelling aspect drawing me in was the rugged, wild journey of the swimrun which repeatedly alternates between swimming and running, without pause, progressing ever-forward. High participation rates for women alongside an inclusive and supportive ethos made this seem a far more appealing option than the testosterone-fuelled mainstream sporting arena that I grew up with an extreme aversion to. Swimrun, however, is traditionally a two-person, team sport and having found no partner, my vague notions of one day having a go seemed dubious – and did I also mention that I only breaststroke and run badly? My furthest runs of 10km seemed a long way from the Otillo World Series at nearly 70km.

Then I found the UK-based, mother and daughter fronted swimrun events organisers, As Keen As Mustard, who put on 5km and 10km solo races in my local area and it all began to look like a distinct possibility – after all, I already owned the suit. I began listening to The Lowtide Boyz podcast on my weekly runs and even managed a few transition practices in local bodies of water. I signed up for front crawl lessons but with the deadline imminent I knew that realistically I would be relying on breaststroke to see me through. With this as my handicap, though my seasoned triathlete friends signed up to the 10km, I still felt the 5km was much more in my sight.

The night before the race my imposter syndrome was peaking – this would be the first organised event that I had ever signed up to. I had never even done a Parkrun – swimrun seemed a bit of a reach for little old non-sporty me. My friend gave me the best advice ever, “when you get there, everyone will be wearing their kit, they’ll all look the part and look like they know what they are doing. Just remember you will look the same as them”.

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She was right, we all looked like seasoned, steely competitors so unlike how I felt inside - but I was wearing my suit, I had my As Keen As Mustard hat on and I was finally going to do it.

The runs were amazing; undulating trails weaved in and out of woodland and cornfields and all were wonderfully sheltered. Only at the reservoir did the high winds become a challenge. The water was excessively choppy; the surf was higher than any sea I had swum, even the strong swimmers found it a test. Nevertheless, with the As Keen As Mustard marshals and kayaks out in force, safety was paramount and no one was ever in any danger. It was at this point, however, that I realised I was not as bad a runner as I had thought. My game plan became to run like mad and pass as many people as I could during the five runs on dry land because any lead I gained would be contested in the water during each of the four swims. It was unbelievably hard but also completely addictive. I kept my eyes fixed on the horizon, except when I was drinking the waves, and battled like hell. The sense of achievement at the finish line was immense.

I was so glad that I chose to sign up to the 5km distance – in those conditions 10km would have been a reach on my first ever outing. Very few swimrun events are so short but the opportunity to have a go at any level through As Keen As Mustard events is eminently inclusive which is the true spirit of swimrun. The achievements of the other competitors were phenomenal, yet nevertheless, as a first-timer coming 11th overall and 6th female, I was chuffed to bits.

I am still new to swimrun but I plan to stick around; turns out I am, after all, a reasonably good runner, I can breaststroke in the choppiest water and by next year, my 50th year, I aim to be swimming freestyle – see you there!

Check out As Keen As Mustard's events

GrafhamSwimrun2023 finish - Copyjpg

Images (c)SBD Photography - see more event photography here